Business Poison

The Poison of Presumed Influence

Back in 2011, Stephanie Rosenbloom wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “Got Twitter? What’s Your Influence Score?”. Here is the opening text:

“Imagine a world in which we are assigned a number that indicates how influential we are. This number would help determine whether you receive a job, a hotel-room upgrade or free samples at the supermarket. If your influence score is low, you don’t get the promotion, the suite or the complimentary cookies. This is not science fiction. It’s happening to millions of social network users. If you have a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account, you are already being judged — or will be soon.”

For those of you in the advertising and marketing industry the above is relatively old news. However, I feel it represents a fundamental poison of modern world business that lives on to this day. This is The Poison Of Presumed Influence.

From an advertising and marketing perspective, there are three types of media. Owned media (e.g. company owned websites), bought media (e.g. search engine terms) and earned media (e.g. external conversations about your brand). Within this triumvirate it is commonly thought that the public value assigned is lowest in owned media and highest in earned media, with bought media in between.

This makes logical sense. After all, conversations that people have can affect the attitudes and behaviours of others, especially when people trust the opinion or advice of the person speaking with them. However, this is very different to how companies often talk at people, hence people tending to prefer personal conversations over propaganda.

Even though the logic may follow that finding those with influence socially are those who are most powerful at spreading brand messages, identifying some online influencers is only a minor part of accessing the power of earned media. The majority part is what you do next. I have observed the common mistakes organisations make are:

1. Treating the influencers like any other consumer and speaking at them rather than with them

2. Offering influencers incentives that are seen as bribes which does more damage than good

3. Doing nothing other than monitoring the influencers, hoping they advocate and don’t turn negative

To properly enter into the world of earned media, an organisation needs to zoom out of the ‘social media’, ‘digital’ and ‘online’ buzz word landscape and address fundamental strategic and organisational paradigm shifts. This includes elements such as assessing the level of porosity your organisation has, accessing and extrapolating the level of ultimate trust in public, creating and implementing engagement protocols, agreeing and testing sign-off processes, authoring and applying crisis management systems, formulating integration into sales conversion, raising staff awareness and infiltrating behaviour mandates, managing the linkage into performance indicators, and so on. This is a brief selection of modern business hygiene factors. There are many more.

My point is, you can start with monitoring and analysis, provided you understand that monitoring and analysis is less than a single percentage of the actual requirement – and even then, as we will see below, it is as far removed from the holy grail as you could possibly imagine. Much of what we’re currently fascinated by in terms of ‘influence’ is ultimately a warm-up act. A sideshow of persistent inaccuracy.

Imagine I publish a public status update that suggests that a particular device is worth buying and someone else gives a similar recommendation at a conference, offline, on stage. Let’s say the same recipient of influence who reads my status update is in the audience at that conference. They see my update and hear a recommendation from someone else at the same time. If they proceed to buy the device, who is credited as the influencer?

In another, simpler scenario, imagine I am amongst several influencers but I was the one who pushed the recipient into conversion. However, the conversion happened offline, totally unconnected with online behaviour or activity.

In the first scenario, I would be the prime influencer as the offline influence at the conference falls outside the remit of online influence. In the second the influence is invisible and the retail strategy may take the credit.

Ask yourself: what would it take for both scenarios to be accurately attributed to the genesis of behavioural change into conversion?

Azeem Azhar, CEO of PeerIndex recognises this, calling it “the Clay Shirky problem,” referring to the writer and theorist who doesn’t use Twitter much. “He’s obviously massively influential,” Mr. Azhar said, “and right now he has a terrible PeerIndex.” Azhar is suggesting this is Clay’s problem and I wonder whether Clay is concerned?

My point is this: if the thing I discuss online, or Clay discusses offline, is converted offline, the only way of tracking influence is to have data sensors on absolutely all physical touch points, linked to absolutely all virtual touch points. This, in addition to CCTV and audio recording devices on every square mile on earth.

Frankly, if those who would like to exploit influence were able to act without regulation and legislation, the ultimate win would be to have sensors inside everybody. Microchips that linked our thought, word and deed. Tracking our every move to place exact accountability on everything. There’s a road map for that. However, there are two significant threats to the effective maturation of this industry:

1. Regulation and legislation may get in the way by limiting what is allowed to be ‘mined’ for various reasons – one of which could be human rights, another could be the terms and conditions inherent to certain platforms

2. People may decide to restrict access to their information and thus dilute the completeness of the surveyed data

Either threat would significantly distort the data but the second threat resonates strongest for me as I personally believe the noise about how all this gorgeous data contains the “black gold of the 21st century”, is fundamentally missing the point that the owners of the goldmines are the general public. Not the companies. The companies would need to petition for the spades, without any pre-existing rights.

By applying this holistic view to today, with every single influence and credibility tool around, if you make several of your online profiles private, you will have low scores and be seen as non-influential. Even if you are influential. The poison lives on.

Many years ago the music industry decided to run a survey to see which guitars were most popular by region in terms of distribution and sales. To be included in the survey each manufacturer had to permissively share their unit sales. One particular manufacturer refused to do so, and that was Fender. The problem was, without Fender in the survey the rest of the data was immediately unrepresentative as Fender had a massive impact on the trend analysis.

I feel the online influence industry is destined to be a partial component in a fuller picture. Currently the buzz is loud enough to skim over the cracks, but take either of the scenarios above and the cracks are poison canyons.

The question then is: What is the maximum level of incompleteness that accuracy can suffer? After all, companies that are seeking to identify influencers surely aren’t willing to discount chunks of real-life influence? Surely they aren’t taking what happens on a handful of channels and assuming that’s anything more than a micro-fraction of the picture?

No, I’d imagine that once the dust settles and the cool, funky technology has become yesterday’s spiky haircut, the proper companies will address this game from an unsiloed strategic place, rather than an online-only viewpoint that tactically assumes what happens digitally is in some way more important or relevant than what happens in total.

Accessing the power of influencers and nurturing armies of fans is mission critical in today’s business environment. However the technologist methodology belies the psychological requirements of modern assessment and engagement. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail – and when you make software, everything can be answered in a programme. Life, however, does not work like that.

There is simply no brand and no system, however cool, that can beat the physiological and sociological realities of how people relate, decide and act. Yes, tools can provide us with some information, but I implore you to see that incompleteness for what it is. Some isn’t necessarily all. Online influence isn’t necessarily all influence. No data gathering equals all actionable insight without addressing points that are seldom related to digital environments alone.

“The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.”

Taken from Business Poison - see 'books' on the menu.