Fast Company Editor Discusses ‘Influence Project’

Fast Company recently ended The Influence Project, an unusual effort with marketing agency Mekanism to find the most influential people online while promoting its own brand.

Along the way, the business magazine had to defend itself against critics who questioned the methodology (it called for participants to spread their links via social networks) and derided the project as a ploy to sell magazines; one even attempted to hijack it.

Fast Company editor Bob Safian spoke to Mediaweek about the goal of the project and the lessons learned.

You had someone actually try to hijack the project. Were you surprised at the intensity of the reaction? We were glad there was intensity of reaction. We knew that controversy and passion often go together online. Some of it is the topic we were trying to set up: who are  the most influential people on the Web. There may be other people who had trouble with the methodology; it might undercut their view of themselves on the Web. But we thought it would be fun. We were experimenting and testing.
What did you find? We’ll be doing a report in our November issue where we’ll identify some of those people. We had some high-profile celebrities who participated, like Shaquille O’Neal. He didn’t finish in the top 10. The people who did were generally not household names. I think that’s an appropriate indication of what social media allows. There are people with devoted followings that the mass media don’t necessarily value.

What else did the experiment reveal about social media? For businesses that are trying to use social media, there are more varieties of channels than are necessarily utilized. The promise is, instead of spending X million on a 30-second spot, I can spend a fraction of that on YouTube. The challenge is, managing that program is not as simple as calling a network and running a 30-second spot.

What was in this for Fast Company? In terms of exposure, Fast Company had 30,000 participants who signed up [for the project], and users came to the site to endorse some of those people. One of the promises is that every person who participated would have their photo run in the magazine. Hopefully some of those will come back and pick up the magazine. It’s an unconventional test of how to get your brand out to a new constituency. The magazine business has not always done a great job of finding new readers that aren’t already readers of magazines. This seemed a way for us to try to introduce people to a brand they might be interested in. I don’t think this is something most traditional media companies would be embarking on, because the editorial team is essentially overseeing a marketing campaign that would otherwise be the purview of the publisher.

What were some of the zanier ideas that didn’t make it? We wrote an article about Mekanism and the partners guaranteed that a program they did could go viral. We said, ‘Prove it.’ There were a bunch that we weren’t necessarily going to do. One was a series called Business Jesus, where Jesus would be giving business advice. There was another one called WTF Man, where a video character would point out foolish business practices and try to instigate an uprising to change them.

One idea was changing the name of the magazine, right? That wasn’t one that was seriously entertained.