Exploding The "Influentials" Myth | Digital Tonto

Posted on by Brandon Klein

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.