Exploding The Influentials Myth
In the ancient world, primitive people knelt at altars and prayed to imaginary Gods for good fortune, a bountiful harvest, a pox on an enemy’s house, victory in battle or whatever. This was a matter of faith, not fact. They simply believed.
In our modern world, marketers pray to their own imaginary Gods. They call them “Influentials,” anonymous people with godlike influence, who are about as real as the ones on Olympus or Valhalla.
Nevertheless, the idea has caught on. Marketers have become positively smitten with it. After all, why pay to reach millions if you can get even greater effect from just a few special ones? As we shall see, it’s a misguided, quixotic notion with little or no evidence to support it. In fact, serious inquiry into the matter finds the notion completely baseless.
How It All Began
The idea of Influentials is not a new one. It has its roots in work done on the two-step theory of communication popularized by Katz and Lazarsfeld back in the 40’s and 50’s and summarized in this 1957 paper.
The idea was simple enough. They found that people were influenced by other people much more than they were influenced by mass media. They called these people opinion leaders and supplied three key attributes to identify them:
Competence: They know a particular field well.
Trustworthiness: They personified certain values.
Access: They were in a position to influence others.
The idea got a further boost from Malcom Gladwell’s enormously popular book, The Tipping Point, which glorified “The Power of the Few” and posited that there are “mavens” among us with amazing abilities to spread information. Smart marketers, he suggested, could identify and exploit these wonderful people to their own advantage.
Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, it’s mostly bullshit.
Why the Tipping Point is Toast
The notion of Influentials is an attractive one. It’s simple, easy to understand and holds great promise. The problem is that for it to work, such people would have to be identifiable by specific traits, economical and achieve measurable results. No one, anywhere, has been able to prove any of these things are true.
On the other hand, very knowledgeable people who have done serious research into the issue have found problems with the notion of Influentials. None more so than Duncan Watts, one of the seminal figures of social network theory, who positively rails at the notion of anonymous mavens and influentials.
Watts points out that, while there are some people are more connected than others, a viral chain consists of more than just two steps, and his research shows that highly connected people are only slightly more likely to initiate long chains. He also points to the work of Solomon Asch, which suggests that it is groups of people, not individuals, who influence.
It is odd, to say the least, that the high stakes, data driven, numbers crazy realm of marketing is so willing to take the Influentials myth on pure faith. Maybe it is because the image of Influentials running around doing their work for them is so compelling.
The Curious Case of Revolutions
While I admit that indulging in fantasies about mythical people with superhuman powers of influence has its attractions, I can think of far more powerful images of the power of viral messages. For instance, this one:
Or this one:
Or even this one…
One thing that the Color Revolutions, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement all have in common is the general impotence of so-called Influentials. Although these grass roots movements spread quickly and had enormous impact, even to the point of transforming whole societies, it’s unclear, even after the fact, who drove events.
Having had first-hand experience in this area, I can attest that the picture doesn’t get any clearer at the ground level. Moreover, as I’ve pointed out before, Malcolm Gladwell, the pied piper of the Influentials concept, who is normally an astute observer, turns into a babbling idiot when he attempts to explain these movements.
The Importance of Network Structure
What all the blather about Influentials fails to account for is that influence doesn’t apply to individuals with specific attributes, but is a function of how information travels within and between groups. We’re learning how to track that, but it’s far more complicated than the facile Influentials concept.
For instance, the day after the 9-11 attacks, the US government released not only the names, but the leadership structure of the terrorists. Unfortunately, as Valdis Krebs shows in this paper, the approach is incredibly computationally intensive even for a few dozen people and, at this point at least, impractical for the large groups that marketers are concerned with.
There are, however, some promising alternatives. Duncan Watts himself has proposed something he calls Big Seed Marketing that is much more in line with research into how networks function. Another idea, demonstrated in this Harvard flu study, is to exploit the friendship paradox.
One thing is clear, if you want to exploit network effects, forget about Influentials.
A Workable Model
While the Influentials concept is a dud, influence is very real and we’re learning more every day about how ideas spread. While much of it involves complicated, often counter-intuitive network math, there are some basic principles that are easy to apply.
Passion: Every movement is built on the passion of true believers and igniting that passion is the key to viral marketing. However, inspiring devotion is not new nor is it mysterious. Brands like Apple, Harley Davidson and Trader Joes, for instance, have been able to build an army of passionate followers without an “influencers” strategy.
Density: It’s been a longstanding principle in biology that organisms grow out of a substrate. In a similar way, social messages flow through dense networks much more efficiently than sparse ones.
There are social analytical techniques that can evaluate connectedness, but in the interst of brevity, let’s just say that there is a good reason that movies are launched in NY and LA, before the rest of the country.
Empowerment: Probably the most important principle of viral marketing is to give people a forum to share. It’s no accident that hi-tech brands like Apple and e-Bay rely heavily on low-tech events where the faithful can meet face-to-face. Harley Davidson, quite famously, has built an amazingly strong community from local clubs.
Social marketing, therefore, is not new, but we do have exciting new tools. Twitter, Facebook and Google+ offer us new possibilities to promote, encourage and track word of mouth marketing. However, that is no reason to abandon good sense.
Brands are not built by influential consumers, but by influential ideas.