Socially Made – Gauging Influence

Throughout 2011, Make Me Social will publish Socially Made, a review of social media’s continued evolution in both influence and commentary.

Influence. It is what everyone using social media for professional purposes is looking to exert, as well as measure for themselves and their competitors. But how can this statistic be obtained?

In March, the New York Times Magazine, in collaboration with Twitalyzer, wrote a piece on the differences between “being followed” and “being influential” while using the popular micro-blogging site. The Influence Index was developed to count the number of times somebody’s Twitter name is mentioned by other users (including retweets) with the idea being that influence isn’t merely about who is talking on Twitter, but who is affecting the conversation either directly or indirectly.

I admit, I was on board. MSNBC ran a segment promoting the article and describing the methodology. I was enthralled. I couldn’t wait to read it. They listed some of the names that made their list, some of which were obvious (President Obama was placed at 7) and others surprising (the only person higher on the Influence Index than veteran wide receiver Chad Ochocinco was Brazilian comedian Rafinha Bastos).

Then, a couple weeks later, I read a single tweet that made me rethink my opinion on this analytic:

“Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).”

I didn’t read this tweet in real-time because I’m not connected to the IT Consultant that posted it, nor are a majority of the 175 million Twitter pages that exist. It offered no trending topics (at the time) and didn’t have a hashtag in it. Yet, this note is the first known public report of one of the most important pieces of news of the decade.

Now, this tweet alone shouldn’t be considered influential (newsworthy, but not influential). However, it was the spark that made me ask questions. I define influential as providing, sharing or being something that has lasting, real world relevance. I don’t define it as a statement that is thought about and perhaps forwarded, but then quickly forgotten about and replaced with the next statement (the difference between the two is similar to arguments Chris Rock makes in his bit about the difference between wealth and just being rich).

My mainstream benchmark for influence is the Oprah Book Club. She turned writers into authors with a simple nod of approval. She made careers. But can influence over social media be measured like this? Not everyone is selling or recommending something, so how can those be properly matched against those that are? Some are able to say something funny that is retweeted, but can laughing at something be considered on the same plane of influence as opinions on a controversial issue?

Among the problems I have with what I know of the Influence Index formula are:

  • The inherent bias that exists towards celebrities. Those with some of the highest marks use Twitter as a supplement to their mainstream communications strategy, which provides them with an existing baseline of influence. A regular individual can’t compete with that, despite being unknowingly privy to Seal Team Six’s next mission. This leads to my next point, which is….
  • Shouldn’t there be a longer timeline to determine influence properly? Influence can’t be determined in the present. I read posts on social media all day, but if asked to recite what I remember of posts from a month ago, only a few come to mind. Aren’t those the truly influential ones? Information shared vs. potential or useful practice of that information: That is a statistic much harder to calculate.
  • All of the individuals mentioned on the list are, in fact, individuals. Organizations also exist on Twitter and have large followings. Also, I would also argue that “Twitter” as an influencer should be ranked with this group.

The Influence Index is a very relevant statistic. It does calculate an individual or group’s ability to find the right mix of saturation and resonance, and this can be useful knowledge to have and develop a strategy around. However, attaining true influence includes both shaping thoughts and changing opinions, which many of these individuals do not achieve or even necessarily aim for. For this reason the New York Times Magazine / Twitalyzer statistic should be recognized, but it should also be renamed.

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Greg Morgan is Communications and Content Director for Make Me Social, a social media agency that develops customized social media strategies for businesses. With experience in industries ranging from sports to state government, Greg focuses in crafting messages for all types of clients in an effort to perfect what he calls “versatile communications.” Born and raised in West Hartford, Connecticut, he remains a loyal UConn Husky fan, despite now residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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Filed under Greg Morgan, Social Media, Socially Made

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