Over the past several years, lots of people have been excited or confused by what has apparently been all the rage and has become the standard of measurement: digital influence. This unique form of measurement has been thrust into the spotlight through the high interest of services like Klout, Kred, PeerIndex, and many others. The intrigue one gets by looking up their score and determining their stature against their peers is quite interesting and on services like Klout, you can even give props (or +K in Klout’s case) to help show others why you think that person is influential. Consumers also like these services because the more chatter you throw onto the Internet through the use of social media can make you eligible for perks–and they’re not insignificant either…I’ve received Klout perks for Virgin America flights, TV shows, Eye-Fi cards, discounts to conferences, and much more. Real brands are starting to pay attention to these services because they feel that it can help them reach influential people and increase sales.

Kred scoreWell hold on a minute…trying to find a way to increase your reach and influence the influencers is one thing, but for brands who want to rely solely on those scores that these services provide you can be a bit misleading. Consumers probably don’t care about the breakdown of their scores, but for brands, it just might be the key selling point. They’re interested in knowing whether the score you have on Klout, PeerIndex, or Kred will tell them whether your social media engagement is relevant to their goal. Well shockingly, none of the major top measurement services seem to do just that. And what brands need to know is how to better understand the concept of “digital influence” and in a new report written by Altimeter Group’s Brian Solis, companies may have their answer.
Businesses just don’t understand

The main premise behind Mr. Solis’s report is that business can’t comprehend digital influence. We all understand “word of mouth” and how that can affect people’s buying behavior or decision-making, but while you might think that it’s easy to quantify influence, it’s certainly not that easy. There are a number of factors that one must consider when trying to determine if someone is an influencer. Of course, everyone is an influencer in something, but the true test is to determine just whether that person is an influencer in what you’re looking for. According to the Altimeter Group report, businesses are still trying to understand the concept and power behind what “word of mouth” means–but those that do seldom learn it through negative experiences: take United Airlines’ fiasco in 2009 with Dave Carroll and the hit tune “United Breaks Guitars” or retail company Gap as they tried to roll out a new website when the community ripped them apart for coming out with such a debacle.
If I want to understand influence, why can’t I have it measured for me?

There’s nothing really wrong with looking at someone’s social media presence and measuring them up against their influence metric using a service like Klout, and Mr. Solis agrees with that. There’s definitely a shift in the winds and brands have begun to take notice, but what is also happening is that they’re also “looking at influence backwards, unknowingly or lazily relying on scores rather than understanding how influence is actually created and used.” That being said, a number can be just a number, but it should not be THE number–it shouldn’t be just the sole metric that one looks at to find out if John Doe is a better influencer than Jane Smith. As danah boyd, Senior Researcher with Microsoft Research & a Research Assistant Professor at New York University said:

Social influence conforms to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The more precisely you try to measure one’s influence, the more you muck up the entire system of influence. Klout and PeerIndex and similar services function through game mechanics. People who buy into the game are willing to manipulate their social media practices to get high status in these systems…

…We live in a society obsessed with measurement, but the act of measuring often means that the thing being measured becomes illusive. When sociologists measure social capital, they do so from a distance precisely because people would try to game the measurement. But what’s happening here isn’t just measurement: it’s trying to leverage measurement to do something. That’s where it loses its role as a measurement process.

Obviously there’s some confusion about whether to take these numbers as they are or with a grain of salt. But regardless of how one feels about these measurements, the Altimeter Group report lays out some key points that brand marketers must keep in the back of their mind when they start to delve deeper into the world of digital influence.

Brands must think strategically when experimenting with influencer campaigns. The point here is to NOT focus on the score someone has on Klout or Kred. Instead, take a look at your intended audiences and what your desired results are. If you think that your audience of gamers would benefit from having someone like VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi or iJustine learning and telling about your product, then that would be a great influencer campaign. BUT, if you think that just because John Doe has a 78 for a Klout score over someone who is internationally recognized as a gamer and you choose the high Klout score, don’t expect to hit your desired result. Mr. Solis says that brands that spend time upfront thinking through actions and outcomes rather than the score will better understand cause and effect.

Don’t make your marketing or engagement choices based solely on scores. The Altimeter Group report doesn’t discount the use of Klout, or its competitors, but what it is saying is that at a minimum, these scores will indicate the stature that someone possesses within social networks and may provide insight into the interest or topics that contribute to that standing. But the value one derives will be in the eye of the beholder–it doesn’t make up the whole part of digital influence.

Your true influence is determined by an outcome or extent of change. If you wish to be successful in reaching your influencers, you will need to define the effect that your target audience should realize. An example that Mr. Solis presents in his report is this: if a prestigious brand such as Rolex sought to find all of the authoritative voices of luxury goods, men’s style, or business travel, the ability to surface influencers by topical relevance becomes paramount. Other services help organizations identify those who are most vocal with opinions on brands and products, and here, Rolex could identify influential voices to help shape and steer desired sentiment. Other services focus on reach by placing emphasis on the size of the network rather than its focus. This creates temporary brand lift by connecting the luxury watch manufacturer to popular, highly connected individuals regardless of relevance to the brand or its unique market.

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