Influence Marketing: Do We Focus Too Much on Top Influencers?

Jean-Marie Bonthous, Seamless Social

Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, recently gave a presentation at the TED conference where she explained how people value either the individual or the group more depending on the culture to which they belong. Some of what Iyengar says has interesting implications for how we approach influence marketing. Americans, she says, believe that what matters most is the individual. In his book The Geography of Thought, Professor Richard Nisbett shows that Greek philosophers, from which American thinking descends, were “analytic” — objects and people are separated from their environment, categorized, and reasoned about using logical rules. Ancient Chinese philosophers and ordinary East Asians share a “holistic” orientation — perceiving objects in relation to their environments and trying to find the Middle Way between opposing propositions. These differences in thought, Nisbett argues, stem from differences in social practices, with the West being individualistic and the East collectivistic.
Do we focus excessively on the individual influencers?
The meteoritic rise of tools like Klout, PeerIndex and Twitalyzer in the US may be indicative of our predominant focus on the individual, and in particular on “me” as the holder of influence. The focus of these tools is entirely on individual influence. You can measure yours, and compare it to the influence of others. Despite all the talk about the primary importance of the network in social media, our first impulse is to look at influence as something that has to do with individuals more than with networks. And our focus is on the few “big fishes.” Ask someone in the US to name the “top influencers” in social media, and they celebrities rather than mention influential groups or networks.
Speaking of big fishes, Lyengar mentions a subsequent article on about an experiment known as the “Michigan fish test” which was conducted during a study by Professor Richard Nisbett, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Michigan, and his colleague Professor Takahito Masuda from the University of Alberta.
These two researchers presented the fish illustration at the top of this post to an American audience and to a Japanese audience, for 5 seconds. The people were then asked to describe what they saw. The Americans’ narrative was focused on the big fishes and how they influenced everything around them. The Japanese, by contrast, described the interaction and mutual influence between all fishes and between them and the rest of the environment.
After a while, a modified picture was presented to the participants, where some elements had been changed and some had not. The Americans recognized the big fishes regardless of the changes but were not aware of changes in the scenery. The Japanese, by contrast, noticed changes in scenery and context.
Are our influence analytics biased by our culture?
It may be beneficial to consider that our American way of looking at influence and influencers is constrained by our culture and that different approaches, more focused on networks than individuals, may complement ours.
While it can be fascinating to look at one’s influence score or at the scores of friends or competitors, the insights provided may be limited as they do not include context, the broader group and system, and interaction.
It may be useful to complement these insights with a more demanding but more comprehensive assessment of the true influence of a network, community, or ecosystem.
This kind of research unfortunately requires the use of community mining or network analysis tools which often come with a steep learning curve, and high subscription fees. However the results are well worth the cost and effort, as they make it possible to have a more real picture of a situation. These tools include, to varying degrees, Cymfony, eCairn, Brandwatch, Sysomos, SAS, NetBase, and a few others. There are wide differences between the capabilities of these tools, and you will need to research them thoroughly to make sure that they meet your specific needs. You may want to visit this interactive directory of social media analytics platforms to find out more about these and other platforms that assess influence.
As the understanding of the importance of taking a more holistic look at influence grows, the use of these tools and their ease of use will increase and they will likely become more affordable.
Do you see a need for a broader, more integrated approach to measuring influence? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Illustration courtesy of Professor Richard Nisbett, and Professor Takahiko Masuta

Jean-Marie Bonthous is Principal of Seamless Social. He consults and speaks about social CRM, influence marketing, social media strategy, social media analytics, and how to grow a social business. He has been a trusted advisor to Fortune 500 companies for more than 30 years and has led many successful, high-impact consulting projects, including IT-enabled business transformation initiatives in the $50-100 million range, strategy maps and balanced scorecard-driven strategic planning initiatives and strategic marketing projects.

2 Responses to Influence Marketing: Do We Focus Too Much on Top Influencers?

  1. 40deuce March 11, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    That fish study was quite interesting. I had never heard of it before, but plan on looking it up now.

    In terms of searching out influencers by using a tool, I’d have to say that tools can be helpful, but you can’t completely rely on them. Tools like ours, Sysomos, can help to point you in the right direction of people that may be of interest to you and your cause, but after that it will require a human to take a deeper look to make sure these people are really a good fit. Tools can be really helpful, but people have to remember that tools can only do so much before a human has to have input as well,

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

    • Social Business Admin March 12, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

      Thank you Sheldon. I agree, there is a point where tools stop and the human brain has to take over..:) Cheers. Jean Amrie

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