Do you have clout? My perspective on the influence debate

Do you have clout? Do you have Klout? Should you care?

image of klout sign inWith the emergence of social media as an important communications tool, there has been lots of talk about influence and influencers. The difficulty is that it’s difficult to define who has influence and who qualifies as an influencer.

We like to quantify things so that we can rank them and compare them. So there’s been many tools emerge that claim to put numbers on how someone uses social media and give them a number that is said to reflect their influence. If your number is high enough, you get the exalted status of being an influencer. People are supposed to be attracting the attention and interest of influencers to help them move their agenda forward.

The best known of these tools is Klout. Not on it? Read on before you decide to join. You should also be aware that there are serious concerns about its privacy practices. Many people are also bewildered by what Klout says they are influential about since the topics can seem to be randomly picked.

I joined Klout but only because I hoped to get the perks but I didn’t get any. I never paid much attention to my score or how much it went up or down. I also never used it to make any decisions. Considering my skepticism about measuring influence and Klout’s tarnished record, I have decided to opt out of it.

How do you measure influence?

I have always been skeptical of the ability to measure influence. The algorithms used make every attempt to do so but how valid is the result? As I understand it, they tend to measure social media activity and how many people pay attention. But even if they look at retweets, replies and comments, does that really measure influence?

Influencers inevitably end up being defined as people with lots of followers (not just on Twitter but in general). So there has been a debate about whether measuring influence is just measuring popularity. Some suggest that’s just splitting hairs because naturally the most influential are going to be popular and those that are popular are going to be influential.

I tend to agree with the line of thinking that suggests it’s unimportant to be concerned about if influence or popularity is being measured. I think that having one definitely impacts upon the other.

But is that all that there is when looking for evidence of influence and finding influencers? Can you be an influencer without being popular or famous (even just online famous)?

Influence is more than numbers

My skepticism about measuring influence is rooted in my difficulty to get my head around how to measure if someone has been influenced. I suggest that influence is about a lot more than online activity. Isn’t influence really about having an effect upon what people do and think? I suggest that’s key to determining influence and that the majority of the relevant data is out in “the real world.” Data that is out of the reach of any algorithm, try as they may to make extrapolations from online activity.

When I look at measurements of my own influence, I am left scratching my head. My business accounts consistently rank ahead of my personal accounts even when statistics I see indicate it should be the other way around. Is it because I like to write and discuss social media on my business accounts?

Does that make me more influential in the social media realm than the impact my personal accounts make in my community? I don’t think so. I’m sure that I have influence through my business social media accounts (such as this blog!) but the numbers don’t make sense to me. It’s not just comparing myself to myself, I sometimes look at numbers of others I know well and am left scratching my head. I know I’m more active and making a greater impact but that doesn’t translate to my “influence.”

I can’t be sure how to explain these numbers, they don’t make sense to me. I think we’re attempting to quantify the inherently unquantifiable.

Influence depends upon what happens

Yes, I agree with the importance of influence and identifying influences. I just distrust applying algorithms that spit out numbers to determine it.

In other recent posts, I’ve talked about people I didn’t realize regularly read my posts or appreciated my tweets enthusiastically telling me how much they like them. I don’t know that means I have influence but I do know it’s not being measured.

Here are some other examples that won’t show up in a Klout score:

When I was still finding my voice on Twitter and had a small number of followers, I sent out a tweet about the name change of the local children’s museum to THEMUSEUM. I said it begged the question about what kind of museum it was. The tweet caught the attention of David Marskell, the institution’s CEO, and he asked me in to explain the change and how it reflected their strategy for long term success. I had just started a blog and so I blogged about it helping to spread word about the change that had not yet been covered by the local media.

Another time, I blogged about budgeting for crime prevention–a post that was prompted by a request for a large increase in the police budget. A few weeks later on a Saturday, I tweeted that I would support the Chief of Police’s budget request if he supported my proposal to invest in addressing the root causes of crime. To my surprise, I got an email the next day from Chief Torigian inviting me to come and talk to him about my proposal and crime prevention. We ended up talking for almost an hour and a half–a conversation that prompted a follow up post.

And just last night, I attended a meeting on an issue important to the neighbourhood where I live. I am confident that the meeting would not have occurred without a series of posts and activity on Twitter that helped me make my case at Kitchener City Council. I’m also sure that few of the people at the meeting have read my posts and even fewer follow me on Twitter (or maybe I should even have an account on Twitter).

I share these examples not to make the case for how great I am. While I do believe that I’m making an impact on making my community and world a better place to live, I recognize that I’m not doing it by myself nor could I.

My point in sharing these examples is I am convinced that influence in social media comes down to who reads what you share and what happens as a result. I’ll even suggest that this is the best definition of the ROI of social media.

Popularity may mean someone has influence but you definitely don’t need to be popular to have influence. Connecting with one person or a small group can change a neighbourhood, a community or go a long way to make our world a better place to live.

That’s my perspective on influence. I think it leads us to a powerful definition of who are influencers. We are all influencers!

4 comments
James Howe
James Howe

Thanks Dominique! We often get fooled into thinking that numbers indicate truth absolutely. In some cases Klout may be accurate but I don't see how we can be sure when it is and when it isn't. It clearly is not accurate in your knowledge of Colorado or another friend's knowledge of basketball so how can we trust its algorithm. It gets really scary when Klout gets used to make decisions about jobs and room upgrades as in this Wired story: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2012/04/ff_klout/ When Klout can start measuring what happens offline as a result of online activities, I'll start paying attention again.

Dominique O'Rourke
Dominique O'Rourke

Good morning James, Thanks for the excellent post. I think we get caught up in trying to measure and to 'prove' that social media works and our educational system trains us to look at quantitative data to do that - 69 is larger than 42 so it must be better- except if all your followers are robots or are in Malaysia when you are living and working in a local market, the numbers don't meet much. These engines also count how many tweets you send so it's about volume and not much about the results. By the way, Klout, I don't know a thing about Colorado! Dominique

communicationcoach
communicationcoach

Well said, James. I firmly believe that the value of communication can only be measured in the actions people take after they receive and interpret it. That is where influence happens. We can influence when we reach the right audience (context) with the right message (content) in the right way (contact). That is where we make a difference (connection). Sue Johnston

James Howe
James Howe

Thanks for your feedback Sue! I also appreciate how you boiled down the essence of what I was trying to say in four concise words.

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  1. [...] James Howe may have summarized it best when he said, “Popularity may mean someone has influence, but you definitely don’t need to be popular to have influence. Connecting with one person or a small group can change a neighborhood, a community or go a long way to make our world a better place to live.” [...]