On Influence In Public Relations And Social Media

January 11th, 2011 | Shonali Burke | 48 Comments

Influence is a hot topic in public relations right now.

Who is influential? How much can they influence someone? How do you reach them? How do you keep them on your side? How accurate are influence rating systems?

Image: abbasj812 via Flickr, CC 2.0

Lots of questions and I’m pretty sure none of us have all the answers, but let’s try.

1. It’s who you know that’s important.

A couple of months ago, I noticed the Livefyre comment system on Danny Brown‘s and Gini Dietrich‘s blogs.

I was intrigued by this system that seemed to really up the engagement level on one’s blog by allowing one to tag people not already in the conversation on other platforms, i.e. Facebook and/or Twitter.

By thus bringing them into the conversation, this has the potential to significantly increase engagement via comments, sharing, and so on. So I signed up for the beta invite.

Now, Livefyre had some kinks – they still do, they’re in beta – but the more I saw it, not just on Danny’s or Gini’s blog, but over at Joe Hackman’s place, for example, the more I liked it. Much better than CommentLuv, Disqus or anything else that I’ve seen, IMHO.

And when I likes something, I wants it.

So I DM’d Gini – with whom I’ve developed a warm camaraderie over the last few months – to ask if there was anything she could do to get the beta to me quicker.

She got in touch with them immediately, and while she wasn’t able to get me an invite pronto, she had been able to get me “bumped up” the list, with my beta invite hopefully to come some time in January 2011.

And it did. Five days ago (as you can tell by the new comment system on WUL).

Lesson: you can be an “award-winning PR professional,” accredited, and all that jazz. But that don’t mean squat when you don’t have a key relationship and/or reputation in the sphere you’re trying to influence.

Gini has that reputation and relationship. Fortunately for me, I have the relationship with her.

2. Influence scores and ratings, without context, are just numbers.

I told you last week of Rude Dude and and the whole I-did-I-didn’t-invite-you-to-speak brouhaha.

What happened after I published my post?

Someone I know (and consider a good friend, who has asked not to be identified), saw the post and figured out which industry association and event I was referring to.

S/he brought it to the association’s attention and, the very same day, I received an email from someone at the organization apologizing for what had happened, and asking if I’d care to discuss it further.

Sure, I said. So I spoke with them, receiving several more apologies, which I appreciated, because really, that was all that was needed.

(Btw, yesterday I got an email from Rude Dude, ostensibly apologizing as well.)

Had the certain someone not noticed the post, and contacted the organization, they would almost certainly not have reached out to me so quickly… if at all.

If we’re looking at ratings and scores, this person does not have, for instance, a higher Klout score than I currently do, and s/he currently has far fewer Twitter followers than I. If we’re looking at that kind of stuff.

But s/he knows the right people. In the right circle, his/her influence is far higher than mine.

Arik Hanson referred to this in a post a few months ago, when he said it’s not necessarily the number that counts, but whether you’re reaching the right people - even if they don’t have those numbers you’re looking for, be it high follower numbers, Technorati rankings, and so on.

Lesson: yes, numbers can be helpful. But it’s even more important to look at them in context. As Chuck Hemann‘s blog is sub-titled, context is queen.

3. If you follow numbers blindly, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Now, I love numbers. And it’s ok to start with them; after all, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?

So when you’re starting to create a media list, blogger list, influencer list, I wouldn’t blame you if you started with the “top newspapers,” “top bloggers,” “top Twitterers,” etc.

But what are you doing after that?

Justin Goldsborough wrote a remarkable post last month on what he fears about ranking systems (he referenced Klout): the “lazy” PR and marketing pros, who are looking for an easy way out, and who will jump on systems like this, since it is an easy out.

But if you’re simply going to rely on those numbers to populate your outreach program, and it doesn’t work… then what?

I can just hear it. “Boss, we reached out to the ‘influencers,’ but they didn’t buy it.”

Yea, doofus, because you didn’t reach out to the right influencers in the context of what you are trying to achieve.

If you’re not a tech company, would you really care what Robert Scoble thought of your product? Or even noticed it?

If you work in the HR field in India, wouldn’t you rather you knew what Gautam Ghosh thought of your efforts than Peter Shankman?

Lesson: simply playing the numbers game blindly will set you up for failure. Check out Jen Zingsheim’s great post on Media Bullseye for more on this.

If nothing else, please take these three points away with you today

1. There is no easy answer.

2. Influence, like everything else, is contextual.

(Actually, say that over and over and over again, so you’re really walking away with five points instead of three.)

3. Regardless of how many tools keep popping up promising to help you “measure” influence – and I’m not knocking Klout, at least they’re trying – you cannot assume they’re going to do all your work for you.

Then and now

Digital tools may have made our communications a little more instant, may have put a lot more resources at our fingertips, may have made research easier, but at the end of the day, you still have to conduct public relations the old-fashioned way.

That is, to say, work at it.

Having now been on the soapbox long enough, I will step down and leave you with the transcript from last week’s #measurePR Twitter chat with Justin Goldsborough which was, not coincidentally, about influence. (It’s incomplete, because WTHashtag messed up yet again, but all the more reason for you to join the chat live, eh?)

Do join us next week, when Steve King of Emergent Research will be joining us to talk about research – a critical element of measurement, as well as of business. Tuesday, Jan. 18 (the day after Martin Luther King Day here in the U.S., so you should be well-rested), 12-1 pm ET.

email
Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

Latest posts by Shonali Burke (see all)

Print Friendly
Opt In Image

"A Little Birdie Told Me" could fly into your inbox just once a month. It's Shonali-as-seen-nowhere-else. What're you waiting for?

36 comments
beastoftraal
beastoftraal

While I completely agree with the points raised by Shonali, I'm just wondering if we need to differentiate between online and offline influence. After all, offline, the need and motivation behind influence is quite different from the way companies like Klout are quantifying it for the online world. The motivation seems to be brands and aiding brands, online.

More importantly, online influence may be more about scalability and the awareness of who is likely to perform things for the sake of demonstrating influence and consciously want to increase influence. My take on this topic was a tad too long and warranted a seperate blog post, which I posted here - http://bit.ly/fRIf9Z (at the expense of making this sound like a link bait).

Laurent
Laurent

Shona,
Interesting article, and I can't agree more with the points you make. Having read so many bloggers (i.e influencers) complaining about 'bad pitch' from 'lazy PR specialist', the challenge still exists. Technology can help but can't provide an automated answer to the problem. It should be only used in the context of proper due diligence. Where I work, we see social media as a network of niche communities. Within those communities, some people have become those influential voices and it's possible to identify them but the key is to do it, as you sais in context. Here, we've mapped communities with 1000+ influencers on niche topics such as beauty, decoration, fashion, cloud computing....and have developed an algo to rank them alltogether. But having a ranked list of influencers corresponding to a relevant niche for one's business is just one part of the problem. The other part is to find within this pool which one are the most relevant to the story you have. You've got to do that by mining their content. i.e: who is the most relevant on the topic of 'organic skincare" in the beauty community. Last, a final check is required (i.e: read the content to make sure it really matches).
Of course marketers want to id the influencers to do something (outreach). An outreach will be much more likely to succeeed if, also, a previous relationship has been established through mechansims like blog commenting or others available.
Laurent

CourtV
CourtV

Really great post, Shonali. I think all of your points were dead on, but seeing as how I work for a company whose main goal is to idenfity influencers, I just have to point that there are tools out there that work far better than Klout - they just aren't free unfortuantely. We have some really great developers and intelligent minds behind us at Traackr working to build one of the largest databases of influencers available, but what it all comes down to (as we've always said) is that influence is completely contextual and, like so many people have commented on here, someone with a ton of followers and re-tweets isn't necessarily going to be the contact you want for your client or yourself. I definitely agree that a lot of times it comes down to good old- fashioned hard work, but with all of this technology at our fingertips, it is also equally important to be smart about where you put your energy and make sure you find the right tools to help you because that can end up saving you loads of time and energy in the end. Then once you find them it's just a matter of utilizing them (probably a topic for a whole other post)!

I hope to chat soon and thanks again for yet another very conversational-provoking post!

http://traackr.com

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

It's like my blogger relations rant. It doesn't matter if the blogger is an A lister if they don't cover your industry! If you sell clothes for monkeys and you're pitching me, I'm likely not going to write about you. Well, shoot. Wrong analogy. Because if you're selling clothes for monkeys and you pitch me, I AM going to write about you because I find that EXTREMELY hilarious!! But none of our readers will buy your monkey clothes. So you got a nice blog post from me, which is great for your ego, but sucks for your sales. The influence is NOT in the numbers. The influence is in the reach for YOUR audience.

P.S. That analogy was written for @rachaelseda

40deuce
40deuce

Tons of great stuff in here Shonali.
I think one of the most important pieces you've touched on here is context. There's tons of tools out there that can tell you who they think is influential (mine included), but it really comes down to why that person may the right influential person for your purposes. When showing people our Sysomos software I tell people that our tool can help identify some key people talking about a subject, but it makes sense to research that person and really make sure they're a right fit. For instance, I may talk a lot about my iphone on Twitter and a tool may say I mention "iPhone" a lot, but just because of that doesn't make me the right person to approach and ask to write about your new fitness app for the phone (the size of my stomach would prove that). Context means everything and while tools can be helpful, I always say to go beyond the tool and really make sure the fit is right.

Cheers,
Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos (http://sysomos.com)

chuckhemann
chuckhemann

There's a lot of debate around this subject, and I think most of it is healthy. I've been doing a ton of work in this area over the last 18 months and can share a few key learnings:

1. Not only should brands be trying to identify who is influential online, but they should be trying to put as much rigor behind the process as possible. Influence is a lot different than reach even though reach should be a component of the process. Influence online is a lot bigger than your individual presence on a specific channel, though we should be looking at how people "rank" against each other on a specific platform. We should be gathering more than a snapshot in time's worth of data when we're doing it. My recommendation would be 12 months, but I understand that could be a significant undertaking. Anyway, you get my point.

2. I know that "automated" tools aren't the answer. Is Klout making a lot of progress? I suppose. Is the Technorati Authority score now meaningless? Largely. Would I ever use their algorithm to define who's influential for my brand? Absolutely not. Why? Because I have no idea what's behind the black box. I'm not asking them to divulge all of their secrets, but I'd like to know a little more than I do now.

3. Brands absolutely want this and it's for many reasons, but the primary one has to do with social media's boil the ocean conundrum. These channels have gotten so big brands have no idea where to start. Who do I engage with? Where? When? How often? What kind of content do I give them? Taking a list of Twitter users who've talked about my brand and boiled it down to a manageable number is key. How you come up the list needs to be rigorous, however, in order for your results to have validity.

Anyway, just a few thoughts. There's more, obviously. It's an important topic and we should ABSOLUTELY be trying to define it. Anyone who says it cant, or shouldn't, isn't really working with enterprise level clients in my view.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Influence is still so primitive when it comes to Social Media/Online it is really hard to measure and you need to have very specific goals. I think it is easier to measure for Blogs than Twitter since we can look at subject, visitors and page views. On Twitter it's impossible to know who saw your tweet unless you get a click through. But you can create a strategy of what to look for and then try out a bunch of ways to find incluencers and then utilize the data. But don't think there is a magic bullet.

jkretch
jkretch moderator

We're happy to have you on board @Shonali ! Thanks for the kind words, and for writing such great content! See ya around here :)

jenzings
jenzings

Thanks so much for the mention and kind words, Shonali! That means a lot, coming from you!! There's so much to discuss and consider when it comes to influence. I've become increasingly disturbed at the inclination to boil things down to a single score/number, etc. While I understand the desire to simplify, it just doesn't work in the long run.

@JGoldsborough - I find that reference to using Klout scores in determining whom to hire through an RFP process disturbing. I hope that doesn't become widespread.

GautamGhosh
GautamGhosh

Thanks @Shonali as someone tweeted - influence is when someone comes to the room where people have been discussing- stuck on something for some time- and then proceeds to ask a question which takes the group to a larger higher plane of discussion and opens up new possibilities.

THAT's influence!

What klout or twitalyzer or these tools measure is "reach" or "microphone value" or "amplification" - which is a bad proxy for influence. It is a useful approximation for some situations - and horribly useless in other situations.

It's early days yet - let's see how refined they can get :-)

JGoldsborough
JGoldsborough

@Shonali @geoffliving Thanks for sharing that , Geoff. Eager to take a look. And thanks for the kind words, Shonali. I have learned a ton about measurement and influence from our conversations and your chat.

I say good for Joe and team on securing that funding. I think they are working to make Klout as accurate a tool as possible and I also think they don't see it as an end-all solution. I hope our peers listen when Joe says -- and I have seen him say on Twitter and in blog comments -- that his own tool is not a one-stop influence tracker. I think he and the Klout team have handled this responsibly (sans the press release issue), so kudos to them.

Btw, I could not tell you what my Klout score is right now. However, I do plan to start paying attention as I have heard of two different RFPs in the past month where Klout score and number of Twitter followers were factored into decisions to hire.

hackmanj
hackmanj

Thanks for mentioning my blog Shonali. I have a video and post that launchd 4 minutes ago so @livefyre is getting some well deserved coverage today. Happy to hear the conclusion of the rude guy story. Situations like that are very frustrating. Klout has been getting a lot of coverage these days. For me it is a nice reminder to maintain my presence on Twitter. When I do not my score of course drops like a rock.

Sorry for the babbling writing this while answering questions about what Twitter and blogs are to my 5 year old!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@beastoftraal Yup, absolutely, and I hope it didn't sound as if I was saying otherwise. This is where it gets really interesting, isn't it? Someone may be "huge" online, but even then, it is almost always in a particular area. And it's only when that translates into actual actions that businesses are looking for in the "real" world, that they're really influential, IMHO.

I think most folks behind companies like Klout, Twitalyzer, etc., acknowledge the need for context. Part of the problem is the people who are looking for an easy fix and jump on these numbers as a way to solve everything. That's what is most frightening, I think.

And I don't think your link is link bait at all. :) I saw your post earlier today and thought it was great!
Thanks for commenting, pal.

Laurent
Laurent

@Shonali @geoffliving I read it but I probably misused the word community. It has many meaning. I should have used 'tribes' ;-). I think it's important, as part of any social media optimization effort to 'know and engage' with tribes relevant to one's brand. I see too many random pitches, too many races for as many random followers and friends baited through special offers...social is about knowing, understanding, caring not just a name/account pulled by some kind of magic piece of software..which at this point can only do so much anyway!.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@Laurent Thanks so much for stopping by. @geoffliving had a very interesting post on his blog yesterday about focusing on communities as opposed to influencers. You should definitely check that out.

CourtV
CourtV

@Shonali Yes, we definitely do. I'm going out of town next week, so I'll be sure to get in touch with you when I'm back. Look forward to it!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@CourtV Hey! Yes, there are definitely tools galore, and yes, one has to be smart about where one's putting my time. I know you and I have chatted briefly earlier about Traackr and we do need to pick up that conversation...

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

@Shonali @ginidietrich @rachaelseda Bahahahah! Oh my gosh just what I needed to start my morning. Thanks again for another great blog post. As a young professional it can be hard to not get caught up in all of this because of pressure from the "higher-ups" in an organization. But it's true it's all about knowing the RIGHT people or perhaps finding those right people. It's also important to actually attempt to form relationships with others and not just have a goal of getting a bunch of followers just for the number shock of it.

And one day...you will find out about Gini, me and the monkey clothes saga...;)

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@40deuce So another first is that I think this is the first time you commented on WUL, Sheldon. Kewl!

Yes, context is critical, IMHO. For example, we're researching and pitching MSM and blogs for a client. Everything depends on the business context of the client, and which media/blogs they have seen drive action. Again, I think it's critical to define what exactly we're trying to achieve, and work backwards from there.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@chuckhemann Nope. MSPA it is. Shall be, at least until you're published.

chuckhemann
chuckhemann

@Shonali @prresearch @kdpaine Shonali - You aren't going to stop with that nickname are you? Actually, gathering the data points via automation is OK. However, coming up with data points via an automated tool is not. Similarly, finding people (that's ultimately what we are concerned with) should be a human element. I've not found a computer smart enough yet to make the semantic distinctions we want to see in a final influencer analysis.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@chuckhemann OMG, Mr. Soon-to-be-Published Author (yes, I'm calling you MSPA from now on) what a great comment!

I completely agree with the rigor you want; I think most of us want that, as well as to know more about how these scores are being calculated. What's frightening is a tendency we're seeing to simply look at numbers without context and run off.

Re: automated tools, @prresearch wrote a really great guest post a while back. Simply because of the volume, I don't think automation is going away, but smart analysis will combine the convenience of automation with the rigor of the human brain.

I would so love @kdpaine to chime in ...

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@HowieG One of the things that is critical is defining what exactly we are trying to achieve. When I talk/present about measurement, I tell people to start with the end. What do we need to achieve? More subscribers? More sales? More or less of what? And then, working backwards, put the strategy, tools, etc., in place.

No, there isn't a magic bullet... yet, at least. As @chuckhemann said, it's a good thing that we're trying to figure this out. We've just got to be careful that we do it the right way.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@jkretch As long as you're not already tired of me trying to get you guys to change things up. :p @LFJeremy can tell you about that...!

Thanks so much again for bringing me in. I am really LOVING LF.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@jenzings You are too kind. :) Yes, it will be terrible if all we're reduced to is a number. Might as well all go and live on the island, then.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@GautamGhosh That's a great way of putting it, Gautam - thank you! I will give Klout, Twitalyzer, et al their due in that they do try to break it down quite a bit. Still, if the first thing that pops up is your "overall" score, it could easily be all that someone looks at. But still - they're trying (the services, I mean), and the fact is that the market is demanding something like this.

There is equal responsibility, as @JGoldsborough pointed out in his post, on our end to use them sensibly and intelligently. It's the throwing of brains to the wind that drives me nuts.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@JGoldsborough The thing about scores being used to hire, etc., is really disturbing, as @jenzings noted. Both Joe and @erictpeterson are being quite vocal about how none of these tools should replace commonsense. Now it remains to be seen whether anyone will listen to them.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@hackmanj Thanks, Joe! @klout has certainly been getting more than its fair share of attention, and it's heartening to see that @joefernandez and team are very open to questions and comments. I have another post brewing in my head about influence... or maybe several! Guess I'd better write them down soon, eh?

Your 5-year-old is asking you about blogs? In the words of Charlie Brown, good grief.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@geoffliving Hey, Geoff, no, not as yet; I'm still catching up on my reading. I will check it out asap. Thanks!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Why: numbers don’t mean anything without context. Just like influence. […]

  2. […] written often about influence (and shoot my mouth off about it as well). I firmly believe that influence is when you can change someone’s thoughts, actions, behavior. So […]

  3. [...] written often about influence (and shoot my mouth off about it as well). I firmly believe that influence is when you can change someone’s thoughts, actions, behavior. So … If you are persuaded by the cause, any of the Blue Key Champions, or me, in any way, [...]

  4. [...] Why: numbers don’t mean anything without context. Just like influence. [...]

  5. [...] I think Livefyre, the comment system that has been implemented on WUL for just under two months, is da [...]

  6. [...] on influence. Among them: Influence scores and ratings — without context — are just numbers. Read on, and you’re sure to have a better handle on this hottest of PR [...]

  7. [...] I stumbled on a post by Shonali (On influence in public relations and social media) on this topic where she refers to 3 specific [...]

  8. [...] of all the metrics, it’s the one that is least needed. In fact, the influencer conversation (read Shonali Burke’s discussion) is like watching Don Quixote chase windmills. That’s why Twitalyzer CEO Eric [...]

  9. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Geoff Livingston and Shonali Burke, Julie Pippert. Julie Pippert said: @geoffliving @shonali the PR influence article was spot on: not enough asking "in what way is this person influential?" http://bit.ly/fI552b [...]

map