Who are the influencers?

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Moving back to valuing social networks, and who are influencers following listening to a Telligent webinar which included discussion on tracking ‘influencers’, I found the following quote from a recent GoViral report ‘The social metropolis’ (pdf) pretty interesting – it’s that passion, not position is what distinguishes an influencer.

Duncan J. Watts, a network-theory scientist from
Columbia University, has recently challenged the
theory of the influencer and the idea of viral marketing
as concept. Originally inspired by epidemiology,
the idea of viral marketing is that a few agents
can ignite and eventually drive a massive spread.
After analyzing e-mail patterns and setting up
computer simulated tests, Watts and his colleagues
found that even highly connected people are not really
the social hubs we expected them to be.

Watts created computer simulated societies to test this
theory, and they actually managed to create trends.
“The problem, I think, is that we have been defining
influentials incorrectly. They are not a particular class
of people like college grads or news junkies. Instead, the
title of influential migrates from one person to the next
depending on the topic of interest. One person is an
influential for computers, another is an influential for
wine. It’s a function of passion, not position.”

The main conclusion is that for the vast majority
of cases that spread, it was just as much a result
of average people – the ones that didn’t seem particularly
influential – as of those who were. In fact,
even when influentials had forty times the reach of
a normal person, you couldn’t be sure they could
kick-start a trend.

Indeed Dr Watts, interviewed over two years ago in FastCopmany, argued that just targetting ‘influencers’ was a big waste of marketing spend. But he also suggested a way that did work, which while not viral exactly ‘doubled’ the effect and used a bit of basic viral looping (if I may inelegantly call it that). It also rings true for anyone experienced in grassroots political campaiging for example, and no doubt is supported by Obama’s campaigning strategy:

In their hunt for a practical way to create maximum exposure for any given ad, Watts and Peretti developed a way to marry the benefits of old-school mass marketing with clever six-degrees effects. Their first test case came when the Brady Campaign, the gun-control group, asked for help with an online petition.

Watts and Peretti set up a regular mass-market ad buy, running banner ads on several prominent blogs and news sites. Like many ads these days, they added a button on the ad that allows people to forward the ad to a friend–a way of collecting eyeballs for free. Typically, people ignore this “share with your friends” pitch. But Watts and Peretti included technology called ForwardTrack, which displays the route the ad travels once you’ve forwarded it. This turned ad forwarding into a piece of social cartography. People would pass the ad specifically to those friends most likely to keep it moving. It became a Facebook-like contest to sign up the most friends.

The technique marries Watts’s two main epiphanies: Cascades require word-of-mouth effects, so you need to build a six-degrees effect into an ad campaign; but since you can never know which person is going to spark the fire, you should aim the ad at as broad a market as possible–and not waste money chasing “important” people. And it worked. The pass-around effect doubled the number of people who saw the Brady Campaign’s ad. They paid for 22,582 hits and received an additional 31,590 for free. Another campaign they ran for the Oxygen network quadrupled the audience size, adding 23,544 hits to the initial 7,064.

Neither was, technically, a viral hit. Neither passed the disease threshold, where the meme spreads exponentially and engulfs the mainstream. “But you can double your impact, which is still pretty good,” Watts says.

The ultimate irony of Watts’s research is that, if you really buy it, the most effective way to pitch your idea is … mass marketing. And that is precisely what the wizards of Madison Avenue, presiding over our zillion-channel microniche market, have rejected as obsolete. “But that’s the thing about magic,” says Watts. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

2 thoughts on “Who are the influencers?

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