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Do You Know Who Your “Influentials” Are?

September 30, 2013


“Online influentials who provide sole or ‘exclusive’ influence over consumers are the most valuable to companies,” reports Robert Berkman. [“Valuing Influentials Means More than Just Counting Connections,” MIT Sloan Management Review, 10 July 2013] Berkman makes that assertion based on “the finding from research conducted by Zsolt Katona, [an] assistant professor at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley.” Berkman continues:

“Conventional wisdom, reflected by influence-ranking sites such as Klout, is primarily to count the number of a person’s connections to assess his or her ability to influence others. But Katona’s research has discovered that determining the value of a particular influencer is more complex, and that finding the value of an influencer depends on several underlying factors in the network structure of that individual with the target set of consumers.”

The study’s results sound similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s conclusion that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” He calls this “the Law of the Few.” [The Tipping Point] Duncan Watts, a network-theory scientist, disagrees with Gladwell’s conclusion about the Law of the Few. Watts insists that influentials play “no special role in trends at all.” [“Is the Tipping Point Toast?” by Clive Thompson, Fast Company, February 2008] Mark Borden describes the debate this way:

“There has long been debate about what, precisely, defines influence. Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, described it as the ability to arouse enthusiasm in others to change their behavior. Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell says it derives from identifying new trends and sharing them through connected networks. Network theory scientist Duncan Watts says targeting influencers is wasted effort, that starting a trend is essentially a random act.” [“The New Faces of Social Media,” Fast Company, 25 October 2010]

So who is correct? The folks at Crowdtap believe that Watts is the “knockout” winner. They “found that when it comes to purchasing decisions, the most influential recommendations come from people we actually know, either through the web or in person.” [“Who Are the Real Online Influencers?” by Josh Catone, Mashable, 13 June 2012] Catone’s article was accompanied by the following Crowdtap infographic.




Katona’s study, which is entitled Competing for Influencers in a Social Network, concluded, “The most valuable person influences consumers who are not influenced by any other influentials online. A company that wants to invest time or resources in cultivating an influential person online should focus on those where the target consumers are being influenced in that product/service arena only by that person and not by anyone else.” Do such influencers really exist? The study concedes, “Often, though, an influencer does not have an exclusive relationship with a set of target consumers. In these ‘non exclusive’ relationships, influencers who are most valuable are those where the sought after consumer/set of consumers has a very small set of additional competing influencers.” Berkman reports that there was an interesting twist discovered during the study. “The next most valuable influentials are those who influence target consumers who have a very high number of additional competing influencers. … The reason: if the target consumer has a high degree of additional competing influencers, a company will not need to invest as much money or resources to reach those consumers because they already have so many incoming connections informing them about all the options and they will buy the product that is best for them regardless of the firm’s efforts.”


Berkman reports that those with “a middle range of additional competing influencers” were the least influential. Katona told Berkman that high, medium, and small were relative terms that “depended on the specific parameters set up by his model.” Berkman then asks the $64,000 question: “What, then, are the practical implications of this study for social media marketers?” He concludes:

“The most important one is that firms should not just look at the number of connections an influential has when determining how many resources to devote to that person. Instead, they need to find out what the target consumer market’s relationship is to the influential by taking into account their connections with any other competing influencers. Although widely available customer-influence network analyses sites and services like Klout do not take into account competing influencers and this overall network structures of influentials, Katona says that some telecom firms are now analyzing the connections between their customers and their competitor’s customers on their own, and he says that it won’t be long until other firms begin doing these analyses as well.”

Jose Capelo is one pundit who believes in the power of influentials. He writes, “Social media influencers are fundamental to drive awareness and popularity for brands.” He defines an influential as “a person or group of people, usually experts in a particular subject, which have gained recognition and credibility through their actions on Social Media. These actions include: frequent posts and of good quality, say what they think, and overall exerting personal persuasion. The influence is achieved by adding a personal brand, trust and experience.” [“Importance of Social Media Influencers,” Marketing Query, 18 July 2013] Russ Henneberry is another author who believes that some people have more online influence than others. He reports, “A study from Forrester Research confirms that 13.4% of U.S. adults online create 80% of the content that influences people. And 6.2% of these web users are responsible for 80% of the influence in social media.” [“How to Find Influential People With Social Media,” Social Media Examiner, 17 October 2012] Of course, not everyone who is in the 6.2% group of influencers is going to have influence in the same area. So, for any one industry or market, that number is considerably smaller. Henneberry asserts that “there are tools and processes to help you reduce the amount of noise in social media. You can use these to concentrate on the key influencers who can move the needle for your business. The goal is to find these key influencers and create a filter that allows you to communicate with them. This helps you develop a positive relationship with the influencers, which can grow your business.”


Clearly, some consumers are influenced by “trusted strangers” they follow online. Although I tend to agree with Watts that the closer a consumer is to an influencer (e.g., a family member, friend, or associate) the greater the influence that person has on the consumer.

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