the real story of influence, not the most connected…

image via Off The Grid PR

Lisa Thorell’s Off The Grid has an excellent, thought provoking post on the assumption that the numerically most connected in a social medium are necessarily the most influential, that is, whether they are the actors who do dictate wide sweeps of behavior across a populace. Her style of writing is refreshingly clear and explicit, and the ideas she trades in are creative in the very best sense in that they challenge industry assumptions, focus on real world results, and are ever looking for new trends in understanding. In this post she attempts to take apart the easier handles on influence like Klout score.

The real problem I have with single-number influence metrics is that, while useful as online Q-scores for celebrity marketing deals, these numbers turn off our brains on thinking about influence. And that’s dangerous for marketers leading an influence strategy toward ROI for clients.  Our inherent human bias to seek shortcuts and easy solutions may well be holding us back from asking deeper questions. Far too often clients ask “How do we find our influencers?” when, as Christakis has pointed out, we might more pertently ask, “Who are our influencees?”

It turns out this viewpoint is a much less-travelled existing road in influence research, one which posits that it’s “the influencees” or “the susceptibles” that we ought to be focusing on. One seminal 2006 study titled Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation used mathematical modelling to examine the dynamics of how influence could disseminate. A key finding of the paper is:

Large-scale changes in public opinion are not driven by highly influential people who influence everyone else but rather by easily influenced people influencing other easily influenced people.

Who are these highly influenced people? Interestingly, a 2009 Harvard study, Do Friends Influence Purchases in a Social Network? found that it was the moderately connected people, not the highly connected, that were the most likely likely to be influenced by friend’s purchases.

slide from Paul Adams’ The Real Social Network While we’re here, if you’re not one of the 500,000 people who have already viewed it, Google researcher, Paul Adam’s presentation on “The Real Life Social Network” makes some great points on how we might focus on smaller group structures within our larger social sphere to get better insight on influence.)

In the end, the secret to understanding the the still nebulous concept of influence, the recommendations and endorsements that really drive our actions, may lie in understanding the bonds within smaller networked groups of “susceptibles”. (Obviously, this is nothing new to the influence researchers. However, marketing folks throwing large dollars for client companies with celebrity tweets ought to be reviewing the details of their strategy.)

Just maybe, fueled by our addiction to the ease of one-number-influence scores, we’re attacking this problem upside down. Inconceivable as it may seem to us now — maybe it’s not the activity within the low-to-medium Klout scorers, so-called “low influencers”, but the activity of the high Klout scorers that is specious and distracting.

via Online Social Influence: When Smaller Numbers are Better

The Appeal of Ratings

These are my thoughts on this diversion of our gaze from the big headliner influences – nodes that have the most connective nodes. The first involves the reason why these palm-size numbers persist. I’ve made this point repeatedly in other forms so it seems to be a theme of mine, but in this incarnation it goes like this. A hidden reason why “objective” ratings (that is, simple rating numbers that can be pointed to and watched by others) are popular is not only because we are mentally lazy. Yes, we are mentally lazy, but there are systemic reasons why as well, and these are perhaps even more important than our laziness. This reason is the game of justification. As experts in one area are asked to make strategy decisions in a relatively unstable (unpredictable) environment, they have to be able to readily point to some easily translatable factor that experts in some other area can understand and respect. It is the very interdisciplinary nature of business that promotes the simplicity of criteria, and because there is always some level of unpredictability in marketing an industry itself will start sliding towards certain criteria, entrenching it. Soon deviation from the industry reference requires more justification than is possible, and you end up with something like the Nielsen rating. Of course ROI is the ultimate criteria (is it?), but ROI expectation standards become set by the use of industry interdisciplinary criteria. It can becomes self-referential.

That is one of the more productive things about Lisa’s post, for social media is still looking for its common criteria. Klout heavies and other numerically respected industry personages are not entrenched. In a certain way social media marketing is still looking for its widely accepted inter-disciplinary criteria. And as she reasons, the answer is not simple because the question is complex. This leads to my second thought. I enjoy the aspect of influence she attempts to draw out. It’s not the most connected, its the most influenced that matters. It is not brought out in the post, but the provisional emphasis suggested actually points in a very obvious direction.

  • Not the most numerical connected, but rather the most numerical connected to those who are most influence-able, who are in turn connected to the same.

If these “most influence-able” types are indeed only moderately connected as Lisa suggests, then it is a question of how and where to find the nodes that most efficiently tap into the field of their connections. The easy superstar model of influence which we draw from broadcast media like film or television, would be misplaced. (You see something of this in how moms and niche bloggers are becoming important marketing nodes.)

Chaoplexic Organization, a lesson from Al Qaeda

I want to suggest a different way of looking at these fields of most influence-able nodes, one that comes from some study of the dispersed nature of Al Qaeda organization. Bear with me a moment. What interests military strategists about the nature of Al Qaeda is the way that it is able to stay organized without remaining in constant hierarchical communication. We would like the whole thing to be about it’s charismatic leader bin Laden and henchmen who are issuing directives, but it really draws its strength and resilience from something else, a helpful though perhaps overly jargoned for our purpose description:

The nebulous and dispersed nature of these organizations has invited their analysis in terms of decentered networks and complex adaptive systems. Thus al-Qaeda is seen as a decentralized and polymorphous network “with recursive operational and financial interrelationships dispersed geographically across numerous associated terrorist organizations that adapt, couple and aggregate in pursuit of common interests” [citing “Observing Al Qaeda Through the Lens of Complexity Theory: Recommendations for the National Strategy to Defeat Terrorism,” Beech]. For Marion and Uhl-Bien, interactive non-linear bottom-up dynamics are behind the self-organization of al-Qaeda in which bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership are an emergent phenomena: “leaders do not create the system but rather are created by it, through a process of aggregation and emergence” [citing “Complexity Theory and Al-Qaeda: Examining Complex Leadership,” Marion and Uhl-Bien].While a diffuse movement of Islamic radicalism coalesced to create terrorist networks from which the leadership could spring, the latter has also assisted the continued development of a decentralized movement by maintaining and fostering “a moderately coupled network, but one possessing internal structures that were loosely and tightly organized as appropriate.”

The Scientific Way of Warfare by Antoine Bousquet

From Moms to Bombs and Back

Let us make the parallel thought, and extend it. The analogy between moms that buy Volvos Islamic terror groups is not a pure one. But the figure  of loosely coupled groups, modeled on Chaoplexic organization susceptible to influence and identifiable across cultural difference is an important one. In terms of social media perhaps it is best to see the most noded social media names in any field as only emergent to that field, and not as directors of it. Generally the degree of control or influence of social media types is also far more diluted than any resistance leadership, perhaps relegated to industry others who would like to be more like them (numerically qualified as an influencer) and thus imitative. This would be qualified by the factor that Lisa Thurell suggests, the sensitivity to influence of those to whom one is connected. Instead Klout names at best may express the field, and not so much guide it. Instead with a fraction’d though still cohesively acting set of users, it is likely that the way into their realm is through the identification of the broad themes that bind them laterally. The Starbucks wordcloud is an interesting example (bottom). It would seem that it is in the cross-section of these swathes of interest and identifications, and moderately connected nodes within those fields that the sweet spot of messaging would be found. Its not in the bin Ladens of the social media world, its in the tribal chieftains, so to speak. Where group behavior is islanded and perhaps chaoplexic (perturb-able, and not guide-able), it is within the field of ideological of identifications, where sensitivity to influence is at its highest and most connected that message most carries its wave.

image via the era of the interest
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