The problems with measuring influence

John Cleese and the Two Ronnies - a still from the 'I look down on him' sketch
Influence: it's all in the eyes of the beholder
In: Communications strategy, Evaluation, Influence

Measuring influence – where to start.

Two good places would be the publication (yesterday) of Brian Solis/Altimeter’s “how to” guide, The Rise of Digital Influence, and attending today’s panel debate (today) at the Guardian’s Changing Media Summit (#cms2012), featuring Leo Ryan (Ogilvy), Andrew Grill (Kred), Bonin Bough (Kraft), Philip Sheldrake (Author – the business of influence), and Joanna Geary (Guardian).

But neither one will nail it. Because trying to find a single algorithm to measure influence is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Fun trying. Maybe a degree of success, but you’re going to basically end up in a bit of  mess.

However – that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It just means that you shouldn’t rely on a single algorithm. Your mix of qual and quant tools and analytics has to have the right balance. Algorithms should be the starting point, not the end point. Which is where I hope/expect this afternoon’s panel will net out.

And above all, it means you need to ask the right question to start with. You need to know exactly what you’re trying to measure, why you’re trying to measure it. And what all the proxies are along the way. Quite separate to that you need to ensure your tools aren’t being gamed – which they all are to a greater or lesser extent.

Yes, it’s possible to use tools like Peer Index, or Klout (or younger and better upstart Kred) to put a measure on ‘influence’, but influence always depends on the context of the question. To set a communications strategy you have to bear this in mind before you start.

By way of analogy: Who is the most influential journalist when it comes to reporting yesterday’s budget? Or even, which is the most influential newspaper, or broadcast channel? It all depends on who’s asking, and why they’re asking. Ask 5 different people, you’ll get 5 different answers, depending on their different perspectives.

Back in the day some people used to think that content is King. Then it became conversation. Now it’s context.

While empirical data is always useful, it is shortsighted to run any ‘influencer’ campaign based on that data alone. And naieve to base it on any one number which is spat out by an influence-identification tool without understanding pre-disposition and motivation alongside it, as well as desired outcomes.

Brian Solis is right:

Before you start to even try and measure influence, you need to understand what you want to achieve at the end of the process.

Which – hang on – is exactly what PR people have been doing for years. Using a mix of qual and quant data, and a decent brief.

I’ve lost track of the number of stakeholder maps I’ve helped draw up using a combination of readership figures, demographics, gut feel and (the missing link with most of these tools apart from Kred) that stakeholder’s willingness to listen/participate – “to be influenced” if you like.

So I was disappointed to see in the Altimeter report that Klout featured so heavily in the Altimeter case studies. It’s an incredibly blunt tool, and extremely easily gamed. And it takes no account (unlike Kred at least) of people’s ‘receptiveness’ to what is essentially a PR approach.

People who know their own Klout score know what’s expected of them when they’re invited to something. There is still no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free status update.

I therefore hope that the case studies were actually much more sophisticated than they’ve been presented. From my experience, all the UK mobile phone networks are already signficantly more advanced in their social crm and influencer engagement than the Windows Phone case study. And Nokia have been running a textbook influencer-engagement programme for years with 10000 Heads.

Having said that, though, Altimeter’s Influence Action Plan is spot on – maybe because it reads to me as a decent guide to running an effective PR campaign. The only thing that’s different compared to 5 years ago is the scale, and the channels/tools to reach people.

And while there are now tools to help measure influence which can cope with this recent change in scale and channels, I worry that the more the process is automated (i.e. based exclusively on Klout scores) the blunter and ultimately less effective it becomes.

I’m willing the tools to get better, I really am. And Altimeter’s reviews and feature trackers are really useful in picking out some of the highlights. But those tools are never going to be as effective as people within organisations having a relationship with people that they’re trying to influence – the ‘permeability’ that as a social business consultant I’m helping clients develop on a daily basis.

Yes, use the tools can help identify potential influencers. But those tools are better used, in my opinion, as a starting point for further research, not as a definitive list. Simply using Klout/Peer Index to start a ‘transactional’ relationship will (as Dinah Boyd acknowledges) kickstart the Heisenburg uncertainty principle. Just as professional ‘compers’ have mastered the “RT to win” phrase on Twitter.

Influence totally depends on content, context and nuance. That’s the problem with trying to measure it. Tools can help. But – although it’s time-consuming – eyeballs and gut feel should always play a bigger part in doing so.

Written by
Chris Reed
I set up Restless Communications in 2011 to create strategic and integrated campaigns for brands I believe in. Away from work I shout at Arsenal, listen to loud music, and walk my dog.
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