Category: Communities

Marketing technology: it is confusing but it is going to be big

This post is a marker.  It is post-it note that says “remember to watch this space and try and get your head around it because this is going to be big”.  It also is an excuse to log what I think is a very useful, if slightly mind-bending post by Scott Brinker.

My current mantra for marketing folk is that the future of brands involves getting your head around three things: the shift from the audience to the individual, the fact that community is becoming the new media, and the emergence of the world of the algorithm (i.e. Big Data).  I also continually bang-on about social media being a process, and of course, one of the things we use technology to do is management of process.

To a large extent, eveything that Scott is talking about in his post plays against these  issues.  To manage relationships with individuals at any sort of scale will require a process supported by technology.  Scott also talks about tag management – which (as I have already written about) will become the foundational process for the operation of communities.  Likewise, it is clear that the algorithm will become the tool that makes sense of the data that could be seen to live within the marketing cloud.  And, as Scott points out, Amazon is already starting to offer algorithmic products to do just that.

Scott also observes that things are currently very complicated and confused.  Or, as I flagged in my previous post, this stuff is ‘legitimately difficult’.  I definitely do no know enough about it – but from what I can see, I think I know enough to say that this is the future.  Technology is going to play a huge role in the management of the relationship between brands and consumers – because technology facilitates process, and this future relationship is going to be defined by process (behaviour identification and response) not by channel and message.

I think I can also predict that the key to really embracing this future is to shed yourself of the snakeskin of the past.  Big data is totally different to small data, to the extent that you can’t build your way to a big data future from a small data starting point or mindset.  Likewise, current marketing technology deals with stuff like CRM but the only way you will be able to deal with the new marketing technology is to free yourself from a CRM mindset (and possibly your CRM people).  If you look at this new stuff through the lens of the old stuff, you will probably fail to see or understand its potential.

Social media: the three (wise) tools

I am often asked about which social media tools to use. My stock answer is to say “the answer is never a tool, social media is not a tool-based challenge.” I then invoke the analogy of the carpenter and the chisel, i.e. a carpenter will probably use a chisel, but having a chisel won’t make you a carpenter – carpentry, like social media, is a process-based challenge, not a tool-based challenge.

3 toolsHowever, I am prepared to make an exception in three cases. The tools I recommend are linked to the three pillars of any successful social media strategy: conversation, content (information management) and community. The reason I recommend them is that none can be misunderstood as a channel (like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram et al can) and all involve construction of a process in order to use them effectively.

Netvibes as a path to Sprinklr

The first addresses conversation (i.e. listening and responding to the things people are saying about your brand which is the only conversation brands have permission to join). The tool I initially point people to is Netvibes. Netvibes is still the only decent free tool that you can use to establish a comprehensive monitoring dashboard. When I show people a Netvibes dashboard their response is almost always “wow – I want one of those”. Hootsuite does this a bit, but Hootsuite is more set up to publish outgoing than it is to monitor incoming. However, if you are looking for an ‘enterprise solution’ – and if your organisation is of any sort of size you will need to do this – the solution is Sprinklr. Sprinklr has now swallowed so many platforms and technologies you cannot really call it a tool, but the reason I recommend it (them) is that of all the major platforms players they are the only one that fundamentally ‘gets’ the fact that social media is a process management challenge rooted in behaviour identification and response. I note they have just announced another new service, the ‘Customer Experience Cloud’. Now I am a bit sceptical about the concept of customer experiences, but this is when a generic (sometimes called consistent) customer experience is broadcast down this thing called an omni-channel. However, the Sprinklr approach seems to be more about how you manage your response to individual consumers – i.e. giving your customers the individual experience they want, rather than forcing onto them an experience the brand wants them all to have. It could also help in the important business of identifying and recruiting superfans (see point 4 in this post).

WordPress (social hub)

The second tool is WordPress. Now I know WordPress has finally become all conquering (although I can remember the days when you had to torture digital agencies to get them to use it), but the more specific usage of WordPress I recommend is the creation of a content / social hub. Without something like this a brand cannot have a real-time voice: it cannot provide answers to questions or link together its usage of any of the other tools such as YouTube or Twitter. A website can explain what you do. But a social hub can demonstrate how you are doing it. It will also help you target Google spaces (i.e. the places where people are asking the question for which your brand provides the answer).

Get Satisfaction

I really enjoy recommending the third tool  – because no-one has heard of it. This tool is Get Satisfaction. Get Satisfaction is an out-of-the-box customer service community. I believe that within a few years every single organisation will have to have one of these in place in the same way that it became expected that every organisation needed a website. In fact I think websites will basically morph into one of these anyway. Why? Well, as I highlighted in this post on Edelman’s recent Brandshare report – consumers are telling brands they want them to do eight things – and the four most important of these can easily be addressed with an online customer service community.

I have looked back over my presentations and noticed that I first started talking about Get Satisfaction at a conference in Budapest in 2008. I keep waiting for it to become ‘big’ and remain disappointed, in fact appalled, at the extent to which so few ‘social media experts’ have latched onto it – but I think this just reflects the extent to which we all still see social media as a distribution challenge, not a connection challenge. Community is all about connection, in fact I think community will become the new media. Wherever we look we see relationships between brands and consumers being disrupted by the intervention of communities (Trip Advisor, Airbnb, Wikipedia – even Google itself). Brands need to understand how to operate within these new community spaces, but also how to create a community space for their brand. People would much rather talk to a brand within its own community space, rather than have a brand invade their own spaces in networks such as Facebook. Facebook (as it is spending advertising dollars saying) is for friendship – and you will never be friends with a brand.

We are starting to see what communities such as Yammer, Jive or Lithium can do in creating more efficient relationships between people within your business. Get Satisfaction can do the same for creating more efficient relationships with your consumers or customers. Better still, if you create an online customer service community, the process you will have to build around it will force you to become more effective in the way in which you operate the rest of your social media strategy. This community will become the hub which defines the rest of your activity.

So – let us kill of the age of brandfill (content) and bring on the age of community.

Must read: Haydn Shaughnessy on the new ‘creative’ economy

FireShot Screen Capture #212 - 'Shift_ A User's Guide to the New Economy_ Haydn Shaughnessy_ 9781941420034_ Amazon_com_ Books' - www_amazon_com_gp_product_1941420036_ref=as_li_tl_ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creat“A decade ago we were wondering what the Creative Economy might actually mean. Now we can see it: it takes the form of delegation of responsibility to individuals who have to find ways to cooperate and ways to innovate while taking risks with their time and income.”  So says Haydn Shaughnessy in a fascinating interview with Forbes’ Steve Denning.

It is an article that raises a host of hugely important issues, so many that it is difficult to know which to highlight or how to summarise them.  For a start it recognises that what is going here is not simply about new technolgies it is about a change to societies and social relationships – especially the relationship between institutions and individuals.

It also makes the critical point that, despite what we all like to think about the ’empowerement’ of individuals in this new creative economy, that is not what is really going on.  Businesses are essentially outsourcing risk and while this is efficient from the perspective of the individual businesses concerned, it is generates much greater costs and inefficiencies for the wider economy and society as a whole.  In a nutshell, if you can outsource innovation to a ‘creative community’ of  10,000 individuals, you can then just choose the one that works best and discard the 9,999 others.  Great for you, and the people behind the one you picked, but not so good for the 9,999.  Not only does this create a society of chronic insecurity, it is also hugely wasteful of effort.

Shaughnessy also makes the point that while this may work in the short-term, if business as a whole is to rely on this approach, it needs to create greater certainty of supply.  In his words “The start-up culture is self-congratulatory. They celebrate several hundred Fintech start-ups in London. But in reality, we need thousands or even tens of thousands of start-ups. To get to 300 successful firms, you need 10,000 start-ups. We are not addressing that kind of issue. What it means is that we also need to prepare people for a different journey through life.”

I was also pleased that Shaugnessy deals with the issue of scale and the extent to which scale no longer confers an advantage (something I have written about before).  He highlights the ability of many new companies to grow huge revenues and operate globally with very few employees often as a result of the fact that they are ‘born social’ and have a social purpose as a facilitator.  In the process organisations such as WordPress and TED they can create an intellectual asset base of goodwill that outstrips the ‘bought’ goodwill inherent in models of many supposedly successful ‘brands’ such as Coca Cola.

Anyway – read the interview (and the associated book).  It is one of the most important things I have read in a very long time because it doesn’t just paint a picture of what is going on, it explains why it is happening and what we need to do about it.


What is local news? Can it exist as a form of media?

Two weeks ago I had just returned home from football training with one of my sons. As I got out of the car I heard some distant thunder-like rumbling. But the rumble kept repeating itself in a very regular way. It was therefore clearly not a natural phenomenon. It was something that was very big or explosive (a bit worrying) but also very distance and not seeming to get closer (more reassuring).

So I wanted to find out what was going on. Did I listen to the local radio station? Did I look at the website of the local newspaper? Of course not. I simply punched #Norfolk #Suffolk #boom into a Twitter search. Hey presto – I found someone else with the same question and shortly we were joined by another with the answer – which was some uncommonly noisy military exercises taking place at the army’s Stanford Training Area (Stanta), some 20 miles way in Thetford Forest.

Now the issue here is not whether the local radio station or newspaper could or should have been giving me this information. Or that their inability to do so therefore represented a unfulfilled need or opportunity for a more (hyper) local variant of their kind to fill this supposed ‘gap in the market’. Radio and newspapers are constrained, and defined by, (and named after) the medium within which they have to operate (radio, newsprint). The expense of using this medium sets a floor, in terms of required audience, below which they cannot go. But this constraint also applies to the type of content these forms of media produce – which is something we tend to forget. We have lived in a world where information is married to distribution (content to media) and where distribution wears the trousers (i.e. defines what content can live within it).

The social digital revolution is all about the separation of information from distribution – the removal of the constraint upon content which expensive distribution channels once imposed. But the removal of this distribution constraint has not, as many assume, made it possible for the content form (as distinct from distribution form) that is local media to break through the glass floor and now operate at the hyper local level. At this level (or within the social digital space) the concept of content ceases to have any meaning – because content is a creation of the world of channel (distribution). It requires containment in order to be content.

What happens at the hyper local level (or in the hyper-relevant social digital space more generally) is that the form of content we call news stops being a finished product (i.e. content) and becomes a raw material. It becomes a component within a process that will allow individuals to define their own news. In the example I have highlighted it has become a conversation – which is a form of process. And when you aggregate conversations, what you end up with is a community.  And the question you also have to ask is that, when you remove the glass floor, do you find you have also removed a glass ceiling – such that process and community based ‘news’ migrates upwards and eats even more of the space currently occupied by traditional news content.  Yes is probably the answer.

The future is therefore pretty bleak for what we currently see understand as local news.  It cannot make itself more local because hyper-local news can never exist, or be aggregated within, the distribution form we associate with media.  And the hyper-local, or hyper-relevant, processes associated with information sharing in the social digital space (the world of the individual, rather than the world of the audience) are likely to migrate upwards and eat even more of its, already relatively impoverished, lunch.

Why the tag (and tagging) will replace emails (and emailing)

MZtagProbably the biggest change to management practice in recent years has been the rise of email.  Almost all forms of management, from review of information to actual decision making, take place within email.  Even decisions that may take place in face-to-face meetings (real or online) frequently require the validation of a confirming email.  This is all going to change.  Rather than spend time dealing with email, managers in the future are going to spend time dealing with tags.

This is why.  Email is basically a form of distribution, it doesn’t really have any function outside of this.  A tag, on the other hand, is a form of connection.  It is a mechanism that allows the right people to be connected with the right information.  We are just starting to realise that value within this new social digital space is only created when we harness its power as a medium of connection, rather than a medium of distribution.  The things that exist within the social digital space (like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) are actually best understood as infrastructures, not as media platforms.  Media is all about distribution, whereas infrastructures are all about connection.

Connection is something that best takes place within communities and there is huge value that can be generated by creating communities of connection.  These can be communities of connection with, or between, your customers or consumers – or communities of connection within your business.   Take a senior executive, show them how they could create and use a community within their business and I can guarantee you that the first thing they will do is breathe a huge sigh of relief and say, “phew, this will allow me to get rid of email”.

Activity within a community is created by the act of tagging.  We already know how you can use tagging to identify spaces, create conversations or ‘file’ information.  But tags can also be used to allocate action.  They can be used not just to identify what something is, but what needs to happen to it and also to identify when the appropriate action has been completed.  Here is a very basic example of this process in action.  Suppose as part of your monitoring of the relevant digital spaces, the monitoring team pick up on an important customer issue that they are unable to deal with.  But rather then having to go through a laborious process of identifying the person who could take action, alerting them and giving them the relevant information – this issue could simply be pitched into the appropriate action space by attaching a tag to it (according to a system of tags already designed).  The relevant people would be watching this tag space – and therefore see when they need to pay attention to something and once the relevant action is completed, they could then pitch the issue into ‘job done’ space, again by putting another tag on it.  You don’t ‘flag’ information, you ‘tag’ information.  The tag space becomes the equivalent of an intray – and your workload (indeed your whole job function) becomes defined by which tag spaces you have to track.  Hence why people will find themselves checking their tags, rather than checking their emails.

This is a whole new way of doing business and it is not just limited to tagging.  Communities tend to dissolve the artificial boundaries that exist around hierarchies – mostly because these boundaries are defined by restricting access to information.  However when you have a community, the value of the individuals within it is not determined by where they sit in a hierarchy, but via the value of their contribution.  Good ideas don’t have to be passed up a chain in order to register with a ‘decision maker’: the idea and the decision maker can be instantly connected.  Indeed the concept of needing a single decision maker starts to melt – decisions can start to be taken, or at least very significantly influenced, by the community.

Most organisations, of course, are still doggedly trying to extract value from social media as a medium of distribution.  It is why we are so obsessed with numbers, reach, engagement, content etc.  However, I think we are approaching a moment when this obsession is starting to loose its grip.  It is interesting to see the extent to which community platforms such as Jive and Yammer are really ramping up their marketing efforts as they position themselves to take advantage of what they hope will be a much bigger pipeline of interest.  I have also recently been deluged by information from Get Satisfaction.  I have long been a fan of Get Satisfaction: they have been one of the tools I have been waiting for to ‘take off’ – although I now notice that their response to the opportunity seems to have been to wildly increase their price.  For a service that started off as being free (indeed started off as being a tool to allow customers to build their own communities about organisations- a bit like Trip Advisor, but for brands) it now seems that the entry level cost is $1,200 per month.  But of course you don’t really attach that sort of a price tag to yourself unless you are pretty confident you can create a lot of value and that there will be a significant demand for your service.



Connection: the most important C word in social media

As I have previously observed, there are a lot of Cs in social media (content, collaboration, community, conversation, consultant etc. etc.).  However, I now think we are in a position to decide which of all these words is the most important – and I hope that that 2014 will be the year we come to recognise the all-conquering importance of the Connection word.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the #SocialAtScale event organised by Sprinklr – an enterprise platform that, perhaps more than many others out there, is all about connecting disparate streams of social media activity (Jeremy, correct me if I am wrong).  This event was essentially a discussion about where a number companies are ‘at’ when it comes to managing social media.  The stand-out example for me was Microsoft (a Sprinklr client, who were also co-hosting the event).  Microsoft, of course, has a long history of involvement in social media and has probably been the bravest in de-centralising their approach: basically just telling people to get out there and get on with it.  I rather liked this bravery.  But it now appears that Microsoft is looking to tame the chaos somewhat and re-assert some element of control, one of the reasons it has turned to Sprinklr.

The new Microsoft approach to social was outlined by Georgina Lewis, who talked about rationalising the numbers of channels and platforms and the mantra “hashtags not handles” (incidentally, this is a mantra which I heartily endorse, not just from the control perspective, but because a hashtag is a space, and a handle is a place – and social media is much more about spaces than places).  However, I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was an approach that was primarily about controlling the output, based on the assumption that uncontrolled output was likely to involve inefficiencies or confusion.  So I asked Georgina about how listening (input) factored into the process Continue reading

Social media and the shift of trust from institutions into processes

This is actually chapter 6 from my book.  I have put it here in order to liberate it from a restrictive means of distribution – so it can operate effectively in the social digital space. The liberation of content from a restrictive means of distribution is, of course, what the social media revolution is all about. Apologies therefore for its reference to other chapters and concepts not similarly liberated (unless you wish to buy the book of course).

Back in chapter two I mentioned that I think one of the most profound changes that the world of social media is heralding is a shift of trust from institutions into processes. The reason this is so important is that trust (and its close cousin influence) is the single most important commodity upon which all societies are built.

We live in a society where trust lives in institutions. We trust banks to look after our money, because there isn’t another way to create the bonds of trust necessary to conduct financial transactions at any form of scale (insert your own joke about trust and bankers here). We trust the media to present to us a representation of the truth (insert your own joke about…). We also trust governments… (say no more). We are, perhaps co-incidentally, at the moment suffering a reversal in our trust of institutions but perhaps this may be more than just co-incidental. Part of the reason may be that we are starting to see other ways to scale the creation of trust, that don’t rely on its management within institutions. There is nothing like a bit of competition to create dissatisfaction with the established order. Continue reading

Why social media is made for people with mild personality disorders

FireShot Screen Capture #237 - 'Idea Storm' - www_ideastorm_comOne of the great things about the social digital space is that it allows people to cultivate their obsessions while benefiting society as a result.  Before going any further, I should stress that there are, of course ways in which obsessions can also be cultivated in this space that do great damage to society, but I don’t think this fact should be used to obscure the positive advantages of obsessional behaviour – for they exist.

Here is an example, which features prominently in the  (Social Media and The Three Per Cent Rule) I have just published.  There is a chap out there called Kachi Wachi Continue reading

People trust strangers more than they trust friends?

Take a look at this article by Erin Mulligan Nelson published a few days ago in AdAge.  Essentially it deals with trust and the so-called Millennial age group – i.e. those people who have most comfort and familiarity in using social media tools.  I am uncomfortable with Erin’s assertion that brands need to host a “killer party that (millennials) won’t want to miss” – partly because I am not quite sure what that party would look like – indeed if it would even look like a party.  But I do endorse the activities that she recommends, especially the idea that brands need to “offer ways for them (millennials) to share their opinions on your brand; and make it easy for them to find “expert” opinions on your products.”  The reason for this is that research that her company, Bazaarvoice, has produced, shows that when it comes to purchase decisions, millennials trust strangers more than they trust friends – provided they can have an assurance that these strangers have relevant knowledge. (Summary of that research here, full report here.)

My take on this is not that they are trusting strangers over friends, which appears counter-intuitive.  Rather, they are trusting a process which allows them to determine that the views or opinions of a stranger are relevant and credible and it highlights what I think is one of the defining shifts of the social media revolution – the shift of trust from institutions to processes.  It is like Wikipedia – you trust an article based on how much trust you place on the process that has produced that article.  You don’t trust the institution of Wikipedia per se, because as an institution it doesn’t really exist – it is community of millions of people all tied together via a process.  Wikipedia is not an institution, it is a process and you trust it on that basis.

Adapting to the world where trust is not institutionalised based on who or what you are (a brand , a friend, a government) but is based on process (making what you do visible and open to critique) is one of the key challenges for any brand.  It is about the importance of understanding the concept of communities of interrogation – the places or spaces that people go to ask questions. These are the spaces within which brands have to live – not on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter


Are digital influencers actually that important?

Everyone is getting a bit obsessed by Klout at the moment.  It is easy to see why.  Social media (or in fact social life) now has its equivalent of a golf handicap bringing with it the potential for obsession based on trying to improve your score.  And from a brand’s perspective, there is seduction in the belief that you can identify and exploit the small group of consumers or customers who are seen to be ‘digital influencers’ tapping into the almost mythical, but often tantalisingly out-of-reach, power of ‘word-of-mouth’ and ‘peer recommendation’ .  This recent Wired article probably sums up state of play.

There is also significant community of Klout knockers out there.  As this article by Jason Falls outlines, this whole issue of digital influence has the potential to create socially undesirable discrimination.  There are also others, such as danah boyd, who have pointed out the often self-defeating nature of an individual’s quest for digital influence, because of the potential to game the system – creating scores that bear no real resemblance to any ability to create an actual effect.  This seems to me to be the influencer equivalent of Hugh’s Law (Hugh Macleod’s contention that all social networks eventually descend into a swampy mass of spam).  Perhaps we should call in danah’s Law.

While I sympathise with the critics, I can’t help feeling that this whole issue will go away for the very simple reason that we will discover that digital influence is probably not the same thing as digital importance – and therefore not very important in the wider scheme of things

Here is what I mean.  Which of these two people might be the most important to your business – a person your influencer strategy has identified as having a high potential ability to spread the message about your brand through digital networks, or a person with very little pre-determined influence but who happens to be the first to spot and tweet about a problem with your product or service?  Or, say, a person who has asked a question for which your business provides an answer – someone who, through their digital behaviour, has identified themselves as a potential customer?   For me it is obvious – while the former is a person with high potential influence the latter is someone with high actual importance albeit low pre-determined digital influence.  Critically, the former is defined by who they are (something than remains fixed over time), whereas the latter is defined by what they are doing at any one moment in time (behaviours and context).

Consider this.  Dave Carroll, the musician who made the famous video song about United Airways breaking his guitar was not a digital influencer.  No strategy designed to identify the high digital influencers within United’s customer base would have picked him up.  However, he became hugely influential, or more accurately hugely important, to United because of what happened to him (context) and what he then did (behaviours) and also what United did or failed to do (behaviours again).

This suggest to me an important principle.  Within traditional media influence and importance were the same thing whereas with social media they have become separated.  This is a practical observation, but it conforms to the theory – that theory being the fact that Gutenberg created an enduring marriage between content and channels, information and distribution.  Channels had fixed and measurable levels of influence: attach your message to a channel (or influencer) and the message could then ride on the influence the channel brought with it.  The name of the game was therefore all about marrying your message with the most influential channels (or to the most influential people).  However social media is all about the separation of information from the means of distribution – the breaking of the Gutenberg relationship.  Thus the importance of information is not defined by the channels it sits within, but more by the context from which it comes.

End of theory, let’s look at more practice.

The Alitmeter Group’s Brian Solis has just produced an excellent report called The Rise of Digital Influence.  This is probably the most detailed description of the topic around – and I recommend that you read it.  However, this report and indeed most of the current discussion around digital influence, rests upon two assumptions.  These are: first, that digital influence is vested in an identifiable and relatively small group of individuals (digital influencers); and second, that the role or importance of these influencers is as information amplifiers or distributers – spreading information about a brand through their network.  I think the case I have presented earlier gives sufficient reason to doubt the first of these assumptions because, no matter how influential these individuals may appear, they are not actually that important (because importance has become separated from influence).

But what about the second assumption – the idea that the role of a digital influencer is as a distributer or amplifier of a brand message?  Perhaps the best way to examine this is to see where this idea might have come from.  In the world of traditional media the role of media was as a channel – it was a means of distributing information.  Therefore its effectiveness (influence) was assessed on its ability to reach the maximum number of relevant people.  Applying this approach to the social digital space, we have realised (some have anyway) that Twitter and Facebook are not really forms of media or even channels, but that they are tools that people use to distribute information.  Thus it is people that are the closest thing, within social media, to what represented a channel in traditional media.  Thus applying the old thinking, the value of a channel lies in its ability to distribute information, thus the assumption that the value of a person in social media should be assessed the same way.  This assumption has great appeal, because it allows us to export most of the strategies and approaches we have become familiar with in the traditional media space, into the social space.  We don’t have to re-invent things, challenge our thinking or develop new approaches.  But this is to fall into one of the classic mistakes that so many are making when trying to enter the social digital space, namely restricting our ability to understand the new space by our desire to make it appear and behave like the old space we understood.  It is the thinking that lead many to assume that the way you use a Facebook page is to try and turn it into a website.

It also has an appeal in that there is already a large commercial sector out there developing and selling us the tools to identify and exploit digital influencers.  These are the people Brain Solis cites in his report as Digital Influence Vendors.  Interestingly, Brian’s methodology is as follows:

  • Qualitative interviews and software demos with a total of 20 vendors
  • Qualitative reviews of 17 services provided by included vendors
  • Qualitative reviews of six brands that have piloted digital influencer programmes
  • Quantitative study of vendor features against key criteria of influencer engagement.

This heavy reliance upon the vendors as the source of his information must, in large part, therefore influence his conclusions (in fact in responding to comments on his blog, Brian has acknowledged that this report is actually more an investigation of the vendors and overview of how best to use these products, which is still a useful exercise provided you buy into the assumptions I have already mentioned).

There is a further problem.  Even if we are right to assume that the role of a digital influencer is as an information distributer or amplifier – how powerful are these people likely to be?  In the traditional media space, if you marry your message to a channel, that channel will be guaranteed to carry the message to the audience.  No such guarantee exists in social media.  If a brand identifies you as an influencer, and sends you information or even provides you with an incentive or a reward, why should you bother to pass the information on?  You are being rewarded for your influence, not for using that influence.  The only behaviour that is being incentivised is that of further building your influence score to get more freebies.  Rewarding influencers does not incentivise the use of influence, it only incentivises boosting your influence score, often by gaming the system, as danah boyd has pointed out.

In addition, even if an influencer decides to use their influence, it is debatable just how much actual impact this will have.  At the end of his report, Brian cites four case studies to support his case.  One of these looks at how Peerindex (Digital Influence Vendor and a Klout rival) linked-up with UK-based Executive Perks to “identify influential individuals within social networks and invite them into a new lifestyle programme.  The programme was designed to provide VIP treatment and preferential rates for luxury merchants and resorts.  The audience required consumer qualification to preserve its exclusive brand and appeal… following a very limited wave of 60 invitations, the programme reached over 200,000 people via re-tweets and responses”.

This seems pretty impressive – 60 initial contacts resulting in 200,000 responses.  But then I thought, how much of this was down to the fact that the initial 60 were ‘digital influencers’ versus the fact that this was just a well-designed loyalty programme that exploited the fact customer qualification (i.e. that you can only participate via a presumed process of exclusive invitation) is a highly effective response multiplier in this sort of situation? Quite possibly the same effect could have been produced by selecting 60 of their existing customer base at random.  If 60 people each invite only two other people this process needs to be repeated 12 times to reach nearly 250,000 people.  However, if those same initial 60 reached 10 times as many (i.e. 20 people) and these (now random, ordinary un-influential people) then invite 2 others it still requires this process to be repeated around 7 times to get to in excess of 250,000 people.  I.e. starting with the influencers makes things happen a bit quicker, but not that much quicker and the success of the process still largely relies on motivating the un-influential to pass the recommendation on.  Thus, success stems from having a motivating proposition, not from targeting an influential group.

Our experience in the viral effect of social networks also supports this conclusion.  Things only become viral when un-influential people become involved in passing them on.  The influencers may a have a role in getting the process started, but most often viral effects spring-up from the most unlikely, or un-influential sources.  It is the nature of what a piece of viral content represents (behaviours and context again) that is the dominant force in driving distribution – not the particular influence of the people who distribute it.

Noel Gallagher of rock band Oasis put it thus when talking about the importance of the music critics and other assorted ‘influencers’: “forget the critics, you only start to make serious money when the squares start buying your records”.

Thus I think we can float the idea that digital influencers may be influential, but probably not that influential.  They may be able to push things along a bit more than your average person – but not enough to create a sustained and extensive distribution effect.  After-all, once someone has handed the baton on to a ‘normal’ person with a sub-20 Klout score we are back into the realms of the un-influential (the “squares”) again.  This further knocks the assumption that the importance of a digital influencer lies in their ability to act as a distributer or multiplier.  There may be some exceptions here, but these are likely to concern people we might call super-infleuncers  i.e. celebrities.  But there is notheing new or especially digital here – seeking celebrity endorsement is a long-established traditional communications tactic.

Thus, I can’t really argue with anything that Brian says in his excellent report.  It is all true – provided one adheres to the assumptions on which his definition of digital influence rests.  But I think these are false assumptions.

So where does this leave digital influence and digital influencers.  I think it leaves us in a similar place to citizen journalism and citizen journalists.  Citizen journalism definitely exists as an influential process, but citizen journalists as influential individuals don’t exist (the only people I know who describe themselves as citizen journalists are unemployed traditional journalists with a blog).  Likewise, digital influence certainly exists, but digital influencers are over-rated.

This isn’t to say there are not small groups of ‘digitally important’ people you should not be identifying and targeting – it is just that these are not the digital influencers.  There are basically two types of important people you need to target.  The first of these are the Dave Carrolls of the world – i.e. the people through who via context and behaviour, identify themselves as digitally important people.  These people can come from anyone in your target audience, in effect they represent your target audience, but you cannot identify and target them in advance.  They are defined by what they are doing at a particular moment in time, not by who they are – these behaviours being things such as raising a compliant, asking a question, commenting on your brand, the competition, the sector.

The second is a group of people who are actually defined by who they are.  These are the people who are your brand loyalists: the people, who for whatever reason, have a special passion or interest in your brand.  Unfortunately this will only ever be a very small group in relation to your total target audience.  Also unfortunately, you will never be able to grow this group to a size where they will make an impact on consumption of your product or service – almost by definition this will be a small and frequently inward looking group.  Which means that, unfortunately, you can also forget the idea that these people can become brand ambassadors or advocates.  Firstly, the fact that they are passionate about your brand doesn’t mean that they will want to become evangelists for your brand.  Despite what WOM advocates might like us to believe, people are not natural evangelists – they only become so in very specific situations: they are either given a significant push or incentive (you will earn some money/points or you won’t go to heaven); or when they find themselves in the presence of other people who share their interest.  The people who are natural evangelists we tend to dismiss as tedious bores – unless they happen to be evangelising on a subject to which we are already a convert.

Secondly, if they do want to become evangelists, you probably don’t want to encourage them to do this – either because of the tedious bore factor mentioned above, or because they will come across as strange.  There are people so passionate about Coca-Cola that they buy red cars and paint Coke logos on them (I know this to be true for I have seen them on Facebook).   However, we don’t make ads about these people because the rest of us see them as weird, and Coke doesn’t want to suggest it is a brand for weirdos.

So what do you do with these people if you can’t increase their number or use them as brand ambassadors?  What you do is work out how they can help you do your business.  These might want to be the people to involve in new product design for example but their importance in this respect is defined by the knowledge and interest in your brand, not by their digital influence.

Finally, it is also quite likely that there may be communities, rather than individuals, who are genuinely digitally influential.  danah boyd has written this very interesting post on how the Kony 2012 video became viral and the role of cultivated communities of young people who fueled the process. Critically though, the focus on these groups was on the creation of the necessary incentive (behaviours and context again) to spread the message, rather than just seeing them as an un-questioning channel.  To digress slioghtly, I am already of the view that the community is the new individual.   Social media is eroding organisations’ ability to isolate individuals and deal with them in sealed boxes as people discover the power that comes from the ability to connect and share experience.  People will only be prepared to engage with organisations within the context of a relevant community, because this context gives them power (but that is another story / as-yet-unwritten post).

So there it is.  The digitally important people are not the same as the digitally influential people.  And even the digitally influential are not actually that influential.  So we can all relax about Klout scores and instead get on with the much more profitable business of focusing on the important people, these being the people that represent your consumers or customers, not those who (supposedly) influence them.

P.S. I haven’t touched on the issue of social profiling.  But if I am right about influence, it means that social profiling should focus not on profiling people according to influence, but profiling according to behaviours and context.  And this profiling information will only be commercially important if it remains hidden and available only to the organisation building the profile.  You don’t want generic Google Goggles to tell you someone has a high influencer score, you want a bespoke set of goggles (an algorithm) that will tell you if someone is, for example, a good credit risk based on the ability to reference a person’s network of friends and cross reference this with a database of credit defaulters.  That’s the issue Jason Falls et al need to be looking at, because social data is already being used in this way – it is what I call ‘listening to data’ as distinct from ‘listening to people’.  Whilst it uses social data, it is a very anti-social phenomenon (see Huffington Post piece on this).