Understanding influence

At a time when everybody and their dog has a social influence score, and business models are built around the number of times a blog post or status update is shared, it seems that influence is all about quantity. But it isn’t. This post explores the nature of influence, and what it means for how ideas spread.

Even if electronic social networks like Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest are a relatively new phenomenon, they are merely the high-tech version of a fundamental human trait: that people interact with each other, forming social networks.

Anthropologists have long been studying how members of a social network influence each other, and how those interactions shape how the members think and behave.

Specifically, they concluded that what determines how influential person A is, is the type of social network that person A has. Also important is the type of network that person A’s contacts have. That is, influence is a function of the quality of social connections.

How does it work?
In very simple terms, there are two types of networks.

At one end of the spectrum, we have compact networks, with all members connected to each other in some form or another. This type of network forms a close-knit community, with strong ties.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have networks that revolve around 1-2 individuals, but with little or no connection among the other members. This type of network resembles a hub and spoke model.

The two types of network have very different impacts in the behaviour of its members.

The close-knit community is weakly permeable to new ideas but has very strong social norms. Hence, once an element of the network presents an idea aligned with the group’s interests, it is very likely to be taken seriously. This post describes one such instance.

The hub and spoke network is open to a broad range of influences. However, the members of the network are not heavily influenced by any one of them.

What does this mean for content producers?
The fact that social networks can have such different shapes means that we need to go beyond knowing how many people shared our content or how many followers those persons have.

An advert, a video, a post or an article may travel far and wide in a hub and spoke network; but the message will only ‘stick’ within a close-knit community.

Hence, what we really need to know is what their networks look like. We need to understand the shape of their social networks.

There are software applications to map these connections, such as TouchGraph for commercial applications, or i2 for crime detection. Yes, that’s right. The visual analysis of social networks is extremely valuable in identifying criminal networks, tracing assets and mapping out the modus operandi:
Source: BBC

In summary, don’t be blinded by numbers. Influence is (also) a matter of quality.

I am really tempted to put my electronic social network contacts through a mapping software to see how it looks like. And you?

3 thoughts on “Understanding influence

  1. Great how you make one thing very clear right at the start: social media technology is just tech allowing us to do what we always did. If I do presentations on the topic, this is one of my first messages as well.As for influence: although I sort of like Klout, I don’t actually believe it measures my influence. It indicates, to me, my activity, and how well people respond to my online presence. Or, more accurately: IF people respond to my online presence. If I want to have ‘influence’, the first thing is to share content that people actually see and do something with. Klout give a good indication of that. If you are less active, and less people mention you, your number falls. But that is not influence, it’s an indicator for something that contributes to influence.If someone joins a new social network (Pinterest for example), because they’ve seen me use it and like it, that is influence. But also, if someone buys a book. Or decides to travel to some place I have mentioned. The moment this decision is not taken online, influence is hard to measure for Klout and the likes. But to me, that is real influence.

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  2. The online-offline interactions are another important aspect of influence or decision making that is never (OK… is rarely) taken into account. The other is the cumulative effect of interactions.Though, your description does raise an important question: does decreasing frequency (i.e., being less active) decrease influence (in the broad sense, not just a quantitative score)? I don’t know.On a side note, a great way to identify networks / relationships / networks… is to ‘follow the money’. Literally. It is fascinating how much you can learn about a person’s life, friendships and interests by looking at the flows of money, from a financial services provider perspective.

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  3. The comment below was left on LinkedIn by Philip Tapkov. Philip is Online Marketing Executive at Ultima Media Ltd, and he was happy for me to share the comment here.I was very interested to read the perspective from someone who deals with the issue of influence on a daily basisThe comment:This is very true! In my industry, we see a small number of social members, however the exchange of values between them is of much higher quality. Although number of shares, likes, retweets and so on is usually a single-digit number, the quality of conversions we get satisfies the project’s expectations. I like the close-knit communities. Also, nice images! 🙂

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