Why Influence—Not Influencers—Should Matter Most to Marketers

A series of posts can only get you so far

You don’t need Kim Kardashian or Jeff Bezos on your payroll to make an impact. Influence stems from the people and organizations that sit at the center of the conversation.

To drive a marketing campaign that generates affinity with an audience, you need to examine the constant flow of information on social media and identify who sits at the center of the conversation and what their impact is on the community.

So, how do you find those nodes of influence? 

People live complex online lives. They post on Facebook when they want to reach a wide audience, take to Twitter to connect with public figures and log on to Reddit to post without fear of ridicule.

To determine what makes an individual influential in a given conversation start by identifying the connections between users and platforms. This can get complicated, but it is possible, and tools like network visualization and graph theory can help you examine how key users spread ideas into mainstream culture.

Data can reveal influence, with human nuance

To analyze an individual’s influence on a deeper level, start with questions about their connections, expertise and discoverability. For example, how many followers does their account have? How often do they post? What rates of engagement do they see? And how many platforms are they active on?  There’s a lot to learn from foundational data points like these.

But if you want to identify wider pockets of influence, you need to explore how involved an individual or organization is in a topic. The nuances in the way certain accounts behave online–from their connectedness to the various ways they use hashtags, geotags, links and so forth–can be incredibly insightful. Someone’s depth of knowledge about a topic, their persistence and the emotions inherent to their communication style can reveal their potential to impact public perception and society as a whole. By homing in on the anatomy of influence in online discussions, you can also understand the role that fake profiles or bots play in influencing online discussions.

The link between social media intelligence and influence

Manufacturing a conversation usually results in superficial brand awareness. And looking at paid influencers is not enough to uncover social media intelligence and inform different areas of your strategy. Brands aiming to engage audiences on an emotional level need to understand the conversation landscape they want to navigate.

Storyful recently analyzed social conversations for a Fortune 500 financial services company that wanted to understand how to differentiate its products from its competitors. In our analysis, we discovered an issue with its influencer strategy. Engagement with paid influencers resulted in conversations about the influencer­–not the products.

This created a gap in understanding of the product benefits and any meaningful separation between the brand and its competitors. Once it realized this, the brand changed its strategy by examining the nodes of influence and focusing their messaging on the pain points they discovered.

Studying influence offers marketers the opportunity to identify the most important conversations around a topic and address any misinformation. By engaging the individuals with the most influential networks in mature conversations, or creating messaging that reaches them, brands can shape the conversations that affect society and their industry.

This concept becomes particularly important in the context of issue-based marketing or corporate social responsibility. Any brand that takes a stand on hot-button issues faces increased risk and exposure for their C-suite. Gillette experienced this recently with its “Toxic Masculinity” campaign, as did Stella Artois with its water conservation initiative.

In instances like these, the question isn’t whether there will be a backlash, but what amount of backlash can a brand tolerate? The more emotionally charged the topic is, the greater the risk to the brand, and failing to understand the influence players have over topics only magnifies the risk even more.

Sharb Farjami is the CEO of Storyful, a global social media intelligence agency that partners with news and business organizations to make sense of social. It is a division of News Corp. He previously served as director of content commercialization at Foxtel in Sydney, Australia.