Sunday, February 20, 2011

Social Media Influencers are Overrated

Much digital ink and marketer money is dedicated to influencers in social media. Find a few people with the most "influence," get them to talk about your product, and a flood of riches will come your way--or so goes the logic.

But are influencers actually influential? I'm not talking about the influence that exists between people who have close real-world relationships.  People trust the people they know personally; that sort of influence always has been meaningful and is no different in the social media era. A friend's, coworker's or family member's recommendation of a product or service matters, whether the medium is a Facebook status update or a chat over a beer.

But are people with substantial numbers of loose relationships really able to influence the attitudes and behaviors of many others? Many social media professionals take as a matter of faith that so-called "key influencers" are vital, but it isn't the influence amassed by the few but instead the influence of the masses that holds the greatest value.

The idea that leading "key influencers" aren't that influential isn't really a new idea. Two years ago, Hubspot told tech companies to "stop begging TechCrunch to write about you." The blog post noted that TechCrunch was (and still is) the second most popular blog on the web (although it seems odd to call TechCrunch, Huffington Post and Mashable blogs rather than media sites at this point.)  HubSpot provided data that demonstrated having TechCrunch write about them delivered traffic but almost no customers; meanwhile HubSpot's experience with mentions in MarketingProfs was exactly the opposite--less traffic; more customers.

Think about Twitter. @TechCrunch has 1.5 million followers, but a single tweet from TechCrunch is ephemeral, unseen by most followers as it scrolls off users' tweetstreams within seconds. To really make an impact on Twitter, an idea or brand needs thousands or millions of people tweeting; that's what causes an idea or brand to be seen by more people and become a more visible and lasting trending topic. Sure, it helps if someone with a million followers joins and retweets a cause or campaign, but that single tweet isn't the difference between success and failure on Twitter.

Or look at Facebook and the power of the news feed.  Most Facebook users recognize that their home page news feed (or "Top News") doesn't reflect the pure flow of status updates from friends. (For that, you need to click "Most Recent" at the top of the home page.) Facebook determines what does and does not appear in your news feed based on the actions of friends.  It isn't the influence of the friends who comment on a post that causes it to surface in your Facebook news feed, but instead the number of your friends who comment that causes it to appear. In other words, two of your friends commenting on a post is more important on Facebook than TechCrunch doing so.

The influence of key influencers is overstated and the influence of the masses is too easily overlooked. The key to success for brands isn't to get a couple key bloggers and Twitterers talking--if it was, Robert Scoble would already have single-handedly made Quora a mainstream site. Instead, the key to unlocking influence is to get the masses talking, which is a much more difficult challenge.


Daniel Young said...

From a PR consultant's perspective, I would argue that organisaitons should consider both areas.

1. Build relationships with high profile influencers to generate awareness
2. Create programs that facilitate peer group recommendations with the intention of generating recommendations that lead to specific actions.

The fact is that the latter requires control of business fundamentals such as product quality, customer service and organisational culture, which are themselves much harder to influence.

Perhaps the most important influencer for the individuals that understand the power of social search and WOM is their CEO.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Daniel. I completely agree--both are important. My fear and experience is that too many marketers are leaning on the easier side of this equation--focusing on more familiar PR-like activities with key influencers--rather than on the harder aspects of getting the masses talking. But your point is well taken--these strategies are hardly mutually exclusive!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this great insight about social media influencers. I would add tow points: 1."key influencer" is defined as someone who actually influences people. For example, I don't know Walt Mossberg personally, but I have come to trust his technology reviews as if I did know him personally. I also trust Consumer reports. Of course these are more traditional media sources, but I think social media influencers also must have a history of influence. 2) I love your point about the "the influence of the masses that holds the greatest value." We are seeing this in Egypt, etc.. In this case it seemed that social media did not as much influence as amplify the situation because of the masses use of social media.

Unknown said...

Good article Augie. Great points about the power of the masses with your Facebook example.

Though I think using influencers can help a business get through a larger audience that may just be the catalyst to getting the masses to chat. So I think using the influencers in the right way can be beneficial but shouldn't be the end game as you point out.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks, Michael. I think most people might define "Key Influencer" with wide influence and not just "someone who actually influences people." My wife influencers me a lot, yet her Klout score is so low it can't even be measured! :)

Egypt is a fine example. Thanks for suggesting the analogy. One imprisoned Google exec may have been an inspiration for others, but the Jasmine Revolution only happened when many people started interacting with many people.

Augie Ray said...


Very good points. One of the problems I have with blog posts is trying to keep them short, and one of the things I wanted to add (but omitted) was that key influencers are better at raising awareness than they are at generating results deeper in the marketing funnel. You're right--key influencers can be effective at "getting the masses to chat" (but much like "viral" videos, there's rarely a guarantee of success.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Augie!
So this is where I will find your posts from now on after Forrester- Now would I have followed you without reading your blogs at Forrester? may be not..and thats because a brand like Forrester is a key influencer. So when I started active participation in social media I went to Forrester and hence to you. SO i think that a Key influencer is rarely a total Hype but a very crucial and important factor- The only thing is it doesn't mean that mass can be ignored. However this type of correction will happen for a key influencer if he/she promotes something that isn't relevant or liked by masses - his influencing power goes down- So I think its not really a over-hyped thing!
Yes and a great post when we need to really evaluate are we following the right direction. It can be a brand life-cycle stage thing also when you need key influencers more in the beginning than at a later stage when your brand is well known.
PS: about following you I might be a late bloomer to realize your expertise or not being aware of it so kindly take it as an example only :)

Kiran Veigas said...

An interesting article Augie.

My two cents:
A) Instinctively, people trust Offline Influencers more than Online (Social Media) Influencers.

B) Key Influencers must "influence" the targeted / focused audience; appeal to the general masses is a bonus. For this, domain specialization is the key.

Michelle C said...

Nice article, Augie! I have to say, we identify "influence" at Synthesio on a general level and then break it down according to the topics we're monitoring, but to say that a marketing budget should focus all on influencers is missing the mark, I'd say. People that aren't as visible or connected as others may not have as high a Klout score as Jeremiah Owyang, per se, but there may be a mom blogger that talks about diapers 200X more than he ever would -- if I were Huggies, that's where I'd go.
"Influencers" are important but they should'nt be the end-all of social media marketing. It will be interesting to see how the notions of "influence" and 'influencers" change, though, as more people join.. ;)
Always a pleasure, Augie!

Michelle @Synthesio

Augie Ray said...


Don't get me wrong--influencers clearly exist, and Forrester is clearly influential. But Forrester isn't a key influencers--it's a collection of them (and together they have more power than individually.)

Also, Forrester is the real thing--influence earned the old-fashioned way, with brains, investment, hard work, data, offline relationships, etc. Their influence wasn't created because they blog and tweet. Based on those activities, they apparently have little influence since according to Klout I have as much influence as all of Forrester--or at least the @Forrester Twitter profile. (I say that to point out the patent ridiculousness of the way we measure social media "klout" and influence.)

But even with real influence, there are still limits. For example, Forrester published a report 18 months ago predicting that Google Sidewiki was going to change Web surfing habits and recommending brands take action. How many did?

Just like those key influencers I referenced in my blog post, analyst firms can raise awareness but cannot necessarily create action. An interactive marketing professional may not take action simply because Forrester suggests it, but if his or her boss suggests the same, action will occur. The boss has true influence! :)

Augie Ray said...


I'm not sure there's a difference between online and offline influence. A person who talks to 100,000 people online (a blogger) or offline (a newspaper movie reviewer) may have the same level of influence because soft relationships aren't different online and off. The same is probably true of hard relationships--have you ever made a friend online, and if so would you consider his or her experiences influential? I have some online friends that I consider just as influential as my offline friends.

Of course, the movie reviewer may be able to be more credible, and that's because your second point is right on the mark: Influence can only be exerted with specific domains. A movie reviewer is recognized as an expert in the domain of movies, but that doesn't mean he or she can start suggesting restaurants or cars. That's one of the problems I have with Klout scores--the idea that I have a given level of Klout regardless of whether I speak about social media or mops is not sensible, is it?

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Michelle,

I agree that reaching out to key influencers and reaching out to everyday influencers are not mutually exclusive. But, to borrow your example, too many brands focus only on the mommy bloggers and not enough on mommies. While a mommy blogger may have wider reach, a personal recommendation from one friend to another will always count more than what a mommy blogger has to say.

I appreciate the dialog on this topic!

Anonymous said...

@Augie Ray:
Now we are talking about the measures/tools which are currently being used to measure influence, which is almost as good as and effective as measuring WoM[i.e. at a very nascent stage and nobody gets it perfectly ]
Klout still doesn't do well- I too find its score ridiculous at times.
But to dismiss the influencing aspect isn't correct either.
YES you are right when you say influencers like forrester. May be considered as passive or maybe opinion influencers rather than active/action generating ones; but influencers none the less.

David Deal said...

The research of Duncan Watts substantiates Augie's thinking ( Duncan's research is a bit too geeky for many marketers; Augie, I think you bring the points to life effectively. Guy Kawasaki makes similar points in his new book "Enchantment' (in his chapter "How to Use Push Technology")

Davina K. Brewer said...

Ok Augie, first thing I gotta do is pay more attention to the Reader. Knew you had moved, new gig and all... but somehow missed the Experience redo. My bad, and I like it.

Second, gonna add this quote from the comments on this post, which I just LOVE.

"Credibility is built inside the echo chamber, popularity outside it." I can be very credible in my own little circle but without that popularity outside it.. not sure what influence I have. For example, many of my friends know me as a MAC geek so they seek out my tech support for all sorts of things, but if I were to blog about an app or gadget, don't think it'd resonate. So yes to the difference on influence, the power of the masses - when they find that thing that gets them - to latch onto it and get the ball rolling. FWIW.