Influence isn’t easy

I’ve been pondering all the recent discussion about social media measurement and found that The Net-Savvy Executive highlights some of my concerns.  In particular, Nathan highlights the importance of being clear about what exactly you are trying to measure online.

One of the problems I have with the developed and promoted by Edelman is in this respect.  Whilst admitting that its methodology is flawed, it still attempts to evaluate online influence on the basis of usage of various social media platforms.  The linkage here between what is being measured and the method to do it is missing – which David Brain admits in the comment discussion. 

So is the index of value simply to determine activity in Social Media?  I presume one of the aims from a public relations perspective is to identify influencers that organisations can then target.  This reflects typical offline strategies that focus on journalists because the media is presumed to have an influence (cause and effect) on large numbers of people.

The idea of ranking online influence seems to be about looking for an easy route to mass audiences – but if we are in an era of fragmentation and individualisation, shouldn’t we be thinking of a more situational approach?

Over the past 50+ years marketing and public relations have sought to divide the public into easy categories on the basis of demographics, psychographics, media usage, lifestyle stages and other “clumps”.  The idea being to identify factors of similarity as predictors of attitude, opinion and behaviour.

One of the most interesting things about social media is that it involves active publics – people who come together around a particular issue of interest to them.  Their level of involvement is likely to be situational and can change depending on a number of factors.  Rather than someone being an influencer per se, isn’t it more likely that they may have some level of influence over some people at a particular time in relation to a particular situation? 

The situation is dynamic and those referencing an influencer are likely to be forming their opinions from a wide range of sources, and essentially, assessing these against existing attitudes and previous experiences.  People are complicit in being influenced – they are not passively affected as if by a magic wand. 

We decide who to trust, whose opinions are interesting enough to consider further or adopt, whether or not we will be influenced – consciously or not.

Another element of social media which seems missing from a rating index is that of engagement, interaction and mutuality.  This does not simply equate to numbers of friends or comments on blogposts.  Influence is dynamic and the value of social media is in the discussion where opinions can form, be tested, adapted, rejected and passed on for the process to continue in other platforms.

What is of interest and influence to me, may not be for someone else.  Of course, if we have some areas of agreement, shared trust, co-orientation of our views, you might like what I say and at some level I may influence you.

For my students, I have an assumed level of power as an influencer – a credible source of information to help them pass their assignments.  As someone with knowledge of motor industry PR, I may have some influence on this basis – or you may reject my opinions as being biased.

If you have visited my blog having Googled “high heels” – which is a regular search term – you may be disappointed with the context of Bulgarian pavements.  I’m not an influencer on  your purchase of shoes – although you might have been influenced in your opinions of walking in Sofia.

I think my level of influence in Facebook is even less meaningful.  It might be interesting to see what people I know are doing – but the link to being influenced seems as tenuous as counting the number of people in my Outlook contacts list.

It strikes me that online influence is much more personal, complex and situational than any simple measure or rating system will determine.  Is the search for Top Influencers relevant or helpful? 

This is a question – there may well be some people who have the ability to influence a key number of people who then influence others and so on.  But won’t those people depend on the issue and its context?  And what or who has influenced them?

It would certainly be interesting from a public relations viewpoint to see tracking of influence on particular issues or decisions – if anyone could deconstruct the web of factors that lead to the final outcome. 

As much as we might like to think that there are just a few trigger people we can reach and they can tip a topic into wider debate, I’m not sure that is universally true. 

Perhaps the PR search for the key influencers is similar to the belief of advertisers that they simply need to find the next big medium to stimulate sales.

The truth is much more interesting and complicated.  Surely it is time for those in PR to stop promoting the idea that we can target and control “endorsers”.  Let’s reflect on a future of more personal, individual and variable decisions made on the basis of a myriad of influential factors – how does that affect our work?

Of course it will be harder to sell on that basis and also more difficult for organisations to accept the lack of control when they want reassurance that investment in PR and marketing will deliver measurable results.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

7 thoughts on “Influence isn’t easy”

  1. Enlightening and thoughtful post. You are right of course but measuring what you describe would feel like juggling with jelly. How many times have I had quoted to me how much a campaign was ‘worth’ from a satisfied customer. It is tempting to have a simple story to tell, to the client as well as the audience.
    If you come up with a way of successful jelly juggling, patent it quick.

  2. I’ll continue thinking about measuring the art of jelly juggling then. But it seems to me that evaluation for the sake of it – which it is if there is not a robust foundation – does nothing to aide either PR or clients.

  3. Your comment about putting influence in context is an important one. The more convincing analysis considers influence in the context of a specific topic, which correlates to what people already know from traditional media relations. A writer for People may reach a larger audience, but a writer for Car and Driver is more influential for an automobile brand. A similar awareness of the scope of a source’s influence is equally important online.

    Onalytica has a detailed example around the topic of bird flu:

  4. From an internal communications perspective this is a really interesting issue. Increasingly we’re told that people are more likely to trust ‘people like them’ rather than authoity figures – especially in the workplace.

    Identifying the key influencers in a workforce is fast becomming the holy grail for IC professionals.


  5. Liam – I would think that internal communications would be a good opportunity to research influence in more depth, since some of the factors involved can be more easily assessed. Although I imagine that influence in such communities will be more traditional network based, it could offer some insight also for understanding online influence.

    I remember you recommending Gladwell’s Tipping Point on the Diploma several years ago and still find a lot of that relevant in terms of looking at people to whom others defer in certain areas.

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