I originally shared this post on my personal blog in July, 2010. It’s quite popular, so I’ve moved it here.

Fast Company just launched The Influence Project, which kicked up some controversy. The gist is Fast Company is forming a quantitative influence metric by seeing what individual, or influencer, has the clout to drive the most clicks to … Fast Company!

What’s Wrong: The Popularity Contest

Brian Solis, author of Engage, succinctly states that “influence is not popularity.” On a guest post for Solis, Damien Basille explains his take on why measuring individual popularity will be fairly useless:

IT’S A SHALLOW AND VERY SPECIFIC PLOY ROOTED IN MISDIRECTION AND VILIFIED THROUGH THE OPAQUE PANDERING OF VOTES. ASKING YOUR SOCIAL NETWORKS TO CLICK ON A LINK IS MEASURING THEIR ABILITY TO CLICK ON A LINK. NOTHING MORE. IT DOESN’T MEASURE THE TYPE OF INFLUENCE BRANDS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FOR THEIR BRAND, PRODUCT OR INDUSTRY VERTICAL.

What’s Right: Learning From Influencers

While there’s a lot wrong with a popularity contest, I like the idea of better understanding influencers. I’m convinced that often the best influencers are not celebrities. Why?

One reason is identification, a concept from rhetoric and psychology. Simply put, identification is whether people relate to you and how that affects being persuaded by you. Marketers, in my opinion, tend to apply it on a surface level. White women ages 40-55 will attract white women ages 40-55, for example. What’s more important is identifying on a deeper level, such as relating to a person’s situation, personality, interests, or point of view. Even more important for an organization is for people to identify with your brand’s personality or character. In fact, identification is a main goal of branding, but sometimes that gets lost in marketing speak.

As customer experience expert Valeria Maltoni says

TRUE INFLUENCE FLOWS FROM DRAWING TOGETHER PEOPLE WITH SHARED INTERESTS. IT’S A PROCESS OF IDENTIFYING AREAS OF RELEVANCY AMONG YOUR CUSTOMERS AND PROSPECTS, COMMUNITY BUILDING, AND ALLOWING OTHERS TO AMPLIFY YOUR INFLUENCE AS YOU MEET THEIR NEEDS.

We could stand to learn more about how people identify with influencers online and what organizations or brands can should do about it. Will the FastCompany project help us learn more? I’m skeptical so far.

What’s Missing: Influence + Quality Content

Sure, influential people are important to influence on the web. But, like many content strategists, I think quality content is as important, and connected to, social networking. (I’m a little surprised FastCompany, a media property, has left content out of the influence equation. Perhaps they’re so close to content, they take its influence for granted?)

Shannon Paul, a social media manager for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, hints at the relationship between influence and content in a recent post (emphasis mine):

IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW MUCH INFLUENCE SOMEONE WIELDS IF THE MESSAGE IS IRRELEVANT TO THEIR AUDIENCE…[INDIVIDUAL] INFLUENCE MAY BE ABLE TO CREATE SHORT-TERM BUZZ, BUT A RELEVANT MESSAGE CAN SPARK A MOVEMENT.

For the Influence Project, if someone’s social network isn’t interested in Fast Company, asking the network to click on a link to it won’t fly. People either won’t click or won’t stick around after clicking.

To complicate matters, as social networks grow, they involve less and less commitment. But, content can deepen the commitment. Organizations can tell an appropriate message through a personality, but they’ll have to show and expand it through quality content over time. In fact, I think this need to grow interesting, fun, LONG relationships with people through web content is partly driving the mashup of media and e-commerce.

And, I think that’s closer to what real online clout is about.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in January 2012.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the founder and CEO of Content Science, a growing content intelligence and strategy company based in Atlanta GA. Content Science owns Content Science Review, Content Science Academy, and the content effectiveness software ContentWRX.  Colleen regularly consults with executives and practitioners to improve their strategy and processes for content. She shares insights and guidance from her experience regularly on Content Science Review, at events around the world, and in highly rated books such as Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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