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Special People - Ch.4 of Everything Is Obvious by Duncan Watts

A clear and convincing take-down of the notion that (a) influencers exist, and (b) marketing at them is worth doing.

To summarise the key points:

1. Six degrees of separation does in fact exist - but it doesn’t work the way most people think it does. When we imagine these chains we assume they must work through celebrities, leaders, & other social connectors - whereas in fact messages travel horizontally, not hierarchically.

The overall message here is that real social networks are connected in more complex and more egalitarian ways than Jacobs or even Milgram imagined— a result that has now been confirmed with many experiments, empirical studies, and theoretical models. In spite of all this evidence, however, when we think about how social networks work, we continue to be drawn to the idea that certain “special people,” whether famous wives of presidents or gregarious local businessmen, are disproportionately responsible for connecting the rest of us. Evidence, in fact, seems to have very little to do with why we think this way

2. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talked about “social epidemics” set off by a small number of “superspreaders” - what he calls “the law of the few”. This is obviously catnip for marketers - it makes manipulating a large audience seem straightforward - and is the model behind influencer marketing. Unfortunately it’s not true.

3. Influence may be subtle - e.g. from observing behaviour rather than explicit verbal recommendations. It may also happen in ways we don’t acknowledge because they don’t fit our model of how things “should” work - e.g. employees influencing their boss.
[NB This isn’t necessarily problematic for influencer marketing: it’s likely to be fine if it “works” by people copying the influencer’s actions rather than doing what they say/blog about.]

4. There are different types of influence - friends are influential in different ways to Oprah. People may also be influential only on their very specific topics of expertise.
[NB Again not necessarily a problem for influencer marketing.]

5. Measuring influence is very difficult, so usually we’re not measuring it directly at all:

For example, to demonstrate just one incident of infl uence between two friends, Anna and Bill, you need to demonstrate that whenever Anna adopts a certain idea or product, Bill is more likely to adopt the same idea or product as well. Even keeping track of just one such relationship would not be easy. And as researchers quickly discovered, doing it for many people simultaneously is prohibitively difficult. In place of observing infl uence directly, therefore, researchers have proposed numerous proxies for infl uence, such as how many friends an individual has, or how many opinions they voice, or how expert or passionate they are about a topic, or how highly they score on some personality test— things that are easier to measure than infl uence itself. Unfortunately, while all these measures are plausible substitutes for infl uence, they all derive from assumptions about how people are infl uenced, and no one has ever tested these assumptions. In practice, therefore, nobody really knows who is an influencer and who isn’t.

6. How much more influential is an influencer than a regular person? Let’s say fully 3x more. That doesn’t get you very far in reaching millions of people.

7. Doing so requires adding a second idea from network theory, that of social contagion. The hope is that this will multiply the “law of the few” so that the influencer’s choices reach millions of people. The problem is that networks don’t work like that.

8. Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds tested this using computer simulations, they found that the initial “influencer effect” didn’t hold across the whole network. An individual with 3x influence didn’t result in three times more people overall being influenced - in fact, often their impact was negligible.

The reason is simply that when influence is spread via some contagious process, the outcome depends far more on the overall structure of the network than on the properties of the individuals who trigger it. Just as forest fires require a conspiracy of wind, temperature, low humidity, and combustible fuel to rage out of control over large tracts of land, social epidemics require just the right conditions to be satisfied by the network of influence. And as it turned out, the most important condition had nothing to do with a few highly influential individuals at all. Rather, it depended on the existence of a critical mass of easily influenced people who influence other easy- to- influence people

9. Yeah yeah, but that’s a computer simulation. So Watts,Jake Hofman, Winter Mason and Eytan Baksh tested this on Twitter data, looking at link-sharing:

The nice thing about these shortened URLs is that they effectively assign a unique code to every piece of content broadcast on Twitter. Thus when a user wishes to “retweet” something, it’s possible to see whom it came from originally, and thereby trace chains of diffusion across the follower graph.
In total, we tracked more than 74 million of these diffusion chains initiated by more than 1.6 million users, over a two- month interval in late 2009. For each event, we counted how many times the URL in question was retweeted— fi rst by the original “seed” user’s immediate followers, then by their followers, and their followers’ followers, and so on— thereby tracing out the full “cascade” of retweets triggered by each original tweet.
As the figure on page 102 shows, some of these cascades were broad and shallow, while others were narrow and deep. Others still were very large, with complex structure, starting out small and trickling along before gaining momentum somewhere else in the network. Most of all, however, we found that the vast majority of attempted cascades— roughly 98 percent of the total— didn’t actually spread at all

10. Comparing half the dataset against the other - as a proxy for a past/future predictive split - they found that individual-level predictions (as a marketer would do, in identifying influencers to target) were very noisy. " Even though it was the case that on average, individuals with many followers who had been successful at triggering cascades of retweets in the past were more likely to be successful in the future, individual cases fluctuated wildly at random"

Conclusion: The most effective way to influence a network is through a lot of ordinary-level people, not an elite of “special influencers”.

Marketing insight: You *might* do that with freebies and promotions, but it’s pretty expensive to give even something small to a mass group (e.g. 5% of customer base). What you actually have to do is:
(a) Not Be A Shit - because if you fall down on the hygiene factors they’re not going to recommend your brand; then
(b) Deliver gold-standard customer service. Making a problem into not-a-problem quickly and painlessly can delight people, and that’s how you create advocates.

Influence marketing as Ponzi scheme

Ah the challenges of having an original idea! In the process of transferring my longer-form posts here to my new domain JayOh.net, I find that the themes in my last post Influencer marketing: two speculative stories were prefigured by Tom Ewing over a year ago:

There are “influencers” who live in the world of “social media”, and if you influence these “influencers” they will say nice stuff about you and your brand will do better.

The reason they are “influencers” is that people who aren’t influencers - let’s call them, oh, “nobodies”, that’s catchy - anyway these nobodies listen to the influencers and spend money on stuff they mention.

So what you need to do is find a way of measuring who’s an influencer and who’s a nobody, and then be really nice to the influencers and give them free stuff - no strings attached of course, since otherwise you would go against BLOGGING ETHICS.

Of course in order to become influencers you need to have lots of nobodies who will listen to you. Some of them will be your friends, so what the brands are doing is giving you free stuff and specifically not giving it to your friends, in the hope that you’ll show it off to them.

This isn’t a brilliant concept of friendship TBH. It’s pretty much the way street teams operate but they’re aimed at 14 year old boys. The lack of reciprocity here also isn’t a problem if you’re a Social Media Rock Star and all your real life friends are Social Media Rock Stars too because they’ll also be getting the free stuff.

So, OK, what if you’re a nobody? (I am a nobody, by the way - I used to be an “influencer” but I guess I haven’t been tweeting enough lately.) DON’T WORRY though, you can easily become an influencer too. Then as your influence increases you will have nobodies of your own to influence and you will get free stuff too.

How do you get influence? Spend more time on social media building your “relationships”. A good start might be retweeting the influencers you know, so they notice you.

If you think this sounds like a massive Ponzi Scheme, you’d be COMPLETELY RIGHT.

Influencing the Influencer on tomewing.tumblr.com

Influencer marketing, peers and trust - two speculative stories

01. The attraction of influencer marketing is in being able to leverage word-of-mouth and peer recommendations.

02. This is valuable because peer influence is the most effective form of influencing what we buy, or what we feel about a brand. [source]

03. Peer influence has this impact because it’s advice from people we trust. Key to almost every definition of an influencer is their credibility and realness:

“Broadly I define an ‘influencer’ as someone who follows their own path, is rooted in creativity, and is looking for new ways to change or redefine their world. Someone who is an ‘influencer’ not only has broad relationships but also has deep relationships. In short, they are building a community around shared beliefs, principles, and interest.”
Philip McKenzie, Managing Partner at FREE DMC and Founder of Influencer Conference: [source]

04. We trust our friends and family because we have known them a long time and feel emotionally close to them.

05. This means we believe that their recommendations will have our best interests at heart.

*

But what happens when brands come in and try to get a piece of the action?

1a. MediaCorp have identified Amelia as influential about Personal Personality Monitoring Devices (PPMDs). They send her their new product, SomaTech, in the hope that she will talk about it to her sphere of influence and generate increased purchases.

2a. As a personal branding expert, Amelia is savvy to influencer marketing. She knows she needs to deliver visibility if she’s to continue receiving shiny freebies, so she schedules a series of tweets about the product for the next week. Each is very proper, including the brandname, the hashtag the PR had sent, and exhorting retweets from her followerbase with one too many exclamation marks.

3a. Amelia has 4,000 followers on Twitter, but two-thirds are bots or other personal branding gurus (or both), and the rest she purchased at $2.50 - $4 per follower. [source]. Almost everything she tweets is automated from Oprah Winfrey’s Paper.li, but she does also auto-schedule interactions with her sockpuppet accounts to keep her Engagement score up. This helps keep the free shiny things flowing from the social media PRs

4a. Amelia’s tweets about the SomaTech are retweeted a respectable 30 times each, and along with Amelia’s 15 positive mentions of the product herself, MediaCorp are happy.

5a. However MediaCorp haven’t connected up their Twitter analytics with their store’s Google analytics or purchase data. If they did, they’d see Amelia only generated 20 clickthroughs and no purchases. This is because her highly automated copy-cat content is followed by almost no real, active human beings. (One of the bots did try to buy something but the transaction was declined as their card was registered in Zurich and their shipping address, Belarus.)

6a. Next week Amelia shoots a YouTube segment for MediaCorp’s competitor’s personality monitor, SimSoothe, who sent her not just a free device but $250 as well. The video gets trolled by 4-Chan and goes viral.

The kind of social media user who’s highly receptive to sharing brand promotions may not be generating content that real people value. Influence metrics are highly gameable and, if incentivised by freebies, attract game-players - not the “real people” marketers actually want.

*

1b. So MediaCorp improve their influencers algorithm and have another go:

2b. Bill’s a normal guy, albeit the linchpin of his group of friends. He’s a bit surprised to receive the free SomaTech device as he’d tumbld just the other day about PPMDs being a bit creepy. This had got a bunch of reblogs and sparked a bit of a debate.

3b. Bill’s not sure what to do with the SomaTech, but his mum raised him proper so he knows that if he receives a gift, he’s got to say thanks. So he writes a blog post as MediaCorp requested, which is auto-shared to his other social networks.

4b. Bill’s ex-boyfriend sees his post. He knows MediaCorp have been exploting child labour in the Philippines, and sees an opportunity to embarass Bill. “Since when were you such a slut that you did everything some big company told you to? I remember that time we were talking about….” An argument breaks out among their friends.

5b. “Mate, seriously? That time you suggested I should get those Blahphonic headphones? Was that you, or, you know, something you’d been told to say?” asks Cate. Bill feels really awkward - it’s the fifth time he’s been asked that question this week.

6b. Bill disables his Facebook account, Tumblr etc - making him an early adopter of the Going Analogue trend, and influencing three friends to follow. But as he no longer has a social media presence, his departure goes tragically un-curated.

If customers know that peer recommendations have been purchased by brands, many will stop trusting these friends’ recommendations. This is pretty corrosive to the friendship - and defeats the brand marketer’s purpose too..

*

So what if publicly disclosed “I did this because Brand X paid me” is individually toxic to personal credibility - but sneaky (non-disclosed) influencer marketing is socially toxic to friends’ trust?

Perhaps the only circumstances in which it works is celebrity influencer marketing - but only where there is no relationship of trust between celeb and fans. To participate in influencer marketing is to say, “I see my friendships as social capital, and I’ll exchange them for a fee”. Works fine for celebs who’re selling themselves (*kough, Kardashians*) but among almost every other social media user? Rather more double-edged.

Influencing The Influencer

tomewing:

OK here’s the idea:

There are “influencers” who live in the world of “social media”, and if you influence these “influencers” they will say nice stuff about you and your brand will do better.

The reason they are “influencers” is that people who aren’t influencers - let’s call them, oh, “nobodies”, that’s catchy - anyway these nobodies listen to the influencers and spend money on stuff they mention.

So what you need to do is find a way of measuring who’s an influencer and who’s a nobody, and then be really nice to the influencers and give them free stuff - no strings attached of course, since otherwise you would go against BLOGGING ETHICS.

Of course in order to become influencers you need to have lots of nobodies who will listen to you. Some of them will be your friends, so what the brands are doing is giving you free stuff and specifically not giving it to your friends, in the hope that you’ll show it off to them.

This isn’t a brilliant concept of friendship TBH. It’s pretty much the way street teams operate but they’re aimed at 14 year old boys. The lack of reciprocity here also isn’t a problem if you’re a Social Media Rock Star and all your real life friends are Social Media Rock Stars too because they’ll also be getting the free stuff.

So, OK, what if you’re a nobody? (I am a nobody, by the way - I used to be an “influencer” but I guess I haven’t been tweeting enough lately.) DON’T WORRY though, you can easily become an influencer too. Then as your influence increases you will have nobodies of your own to influence and you will get free stuff too.

How do you get influence? Spend more time on social media building your “relationships”. A good start might be retweeting the influencers you know, so they notice you.

If you think this sounds like a massive Ponzi Scheme, you’d be COMPLETELY RIGHT.