Looking for influencers on social networks

High hopes for trendsetters

Wishing to address people who may – or may not – buy their product, marketers deploy techniques that may – or may not – gain them access to customers’ decision making mechanisms. They conjure ad campaigns, devise attractive strap-lines, follow their subjects as they go about their daily lives and pin all their hopes on a single opportunity to gain even a few seconds of quality access to customers’ very busy mind.

During each and every stage of this interaction, marketers operate through a complex, creative and potentially efficient set of tools. They never get under a customer’s skin, at best they’d access her iPhone or his Golf Club. Even so-called ‘Direct Marketing’ is practiced through remote communication.

Communicating indirectly does not bode well for brands’ relationships with their customers. To quote Groucho Marx: “Just imagine how many armies were lost, how many empires fell, how many businesses collapsed just because a busy so-and-so sent a second so-and-so to a third so-and-so and said ‘Tell him I sent you…’ ”

… Which is the reason why one of the most enduring – and endearing – concepts in modern marketing is that of the person who has the ability to influence others and get them to follow his lead.

The first known influencer

The search for people with influence started in the United States almost 60 years ago. In 1960, John F Kennedy got Frank Sinatra to sing a special version of his hit “high hopes” (Video) in support of the campaign. Kennedy looked for people – like Sinatra – who had the ability to influence others. These as-yet unnamed people had no title, just a crucially important function – to influence.

In 1962, communication sociologist Everett M. Rogers came up with the name “trendsetter” – and it stuck. Rogers looked at the way consumers got to know brands and argued that influence moves like a wave and undergoes a process of what he called “diffusion”. Rogers defined diffusion as “the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system.”

Rogers identified five successive groups that adopt innovations. The first group are Innovators (socially adept and popular, playful, vibrant – and financially flush) which are then followed by Early Adopters (powerful opinion leaders, these people consider innovations and decide on the ones they wish to adopt).  The next groups are Early Majority and the Late Majority, who make-up the bulk of Rogers’ brand-adopters model (68%) – they follow leads, mostly from Early Adopters.  The last sub-group, which Rogers called the Laggards, picks up the curve as it comes down even further – Laggards are risk-avert, promotion-seeker type consumer, and they wait until all risk potentialities have been eliminated before taking the plunge.

Rogers, and others who followed up on his work, believe that there is a way to harness the diffusion process in order to increase sales: find the innovators/trendsetter/influentials, get them to buy into your product – and you’re in the pound seat.  Of course, not everyone bought into this model. Dissenters – like Yahoo’s Duncan Watts, agree that influencers exist, and that they can affect product-adoption, but – says Watts (PDF) – “we find that predictions of which particular user or URL will generate large cascades are relatively unreliable. We conclude, therefore, that word of- mouth diffusion can only be harnessed reliably by targeting large numbers of potential influencers, thereby capturing average effects.”

Generating a Mexican wave

Ignoring naysayers, marketers dream of capturing Innovators’ imagination or, at least, Early Adopters’ love for exclusive brands, and their ability to generate a commercial Mexican wave.  Influence goes through a linear process, and is ushered in by key players who grab a product as if it were a baton in a 4 x 4 relay, run with it and pass it on to the next group. Marketers believe that if they can get to ride the crest of diffusion, they’ll cause a snowball effect that would ensure their brand a phenomenal success.

This belief is, in truth, not totally unfounded. Consider – for example – the series of Apple campaigns, pushing a consecutive host of new products, one by one, and running the full race, literally uninterrupted or challenged.  Reflecting on Apple’s marketing strategies, strategic marketing pioneer Regis McKenna- who provided intellectual guidance for the now legendary Macintosh launch – felt that influencers are key, then as now: “consumers are weary of advertising, and trustworthy, neutral parties are very important to helping communicate the value proposition of the product. As secretive as Apple is, it still has a powerful grip on the high tech media because of its long tradition of nurturing relationships with them, and it has fanatically devoted users who are powerful influencers in their own right.”

Because they reflect on the relationship between customers and the brands they adopt, diffusion model are not platform specific. Principles that applied to “above the line” and “below the line” marketing of yore are easy to adapt to the reality of Social Networks.   Recently, Ed Keller and Jon Berry  coined the term “Influentials,” which they define as “opinion leaders and trendsetters with their friends and neighbors” – in this model; influence is the sum total of the relationships within the community explored.

Using technology to find influencers

Technology enables Marketers to find influencers. Klout, who described its founders as “obsessed with the idea of influence on the social web” offers the Klout Score, defined as the measurement of one’s overall online influence. Other measurements are True Reach (the size of one’s engaged audience as a factor of one’s followers and friends who actively listen and react to one’s messages), Amplification Probability (the likelihood that one’s’ messages will generate actions), and Network Score (how many top Klout Scorers think highly about One’s content.)

Applications like Peerindex look at influencers from a different angle. Peerindex considers one’s “social capital” as a manifestation of one’s authority online. Authority is derived thorough algorithms that calculate how many people think that one’s content is worth commenting on, sharing, retweeting etc.

These days, marketers can use Klout Scores and Peer Indices to identify opinion leaders, people whose authority may be helpful in getting products to market. Even if Duncan Watts is right when he says that diffusion of influence is a random process, having access to numerous social authorities is a sure way to get one’s brand out, quickly and effectively.

But using tools and analysing social network interactions is only the tip of a very large iceberg. At the end of the day, it appears that the best way to identify and engage potential influencers is to use – in addition to technology – the same age-old principles found in successful eating establishments, where the restaurateur, pub owner or chef, recognises regular patrons, engages with them discreetly, and anticipates their needs and wants.

Future marketing strategies will need to take into account that influencers do not use a single channel of communication, The ability to link Klout Scores and Peer Indices data to people’s email correspondence, web and blog presence and social network interaction could provide an effective, meaningful marketing platform.


  1. *.Numerous adoption models have subsequently been built on Rogers’ initial thinking. Malcolm Gladwell’s cult book “The Tipping Point”has three players in the process: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen.
  2. *.Duncan Brown and Nick Hayes’ book Influencer Marketing: Who Really Influences Your Customers? offers a model involving a larger number of sub-groups (Idea planters, Predictors, Trend setters, Proclaimers, Aggregators/communicators, Scopers, Recommenders, Persuaders, Negotiators and Validators).
  3. *.“Diffusion models” are based on the premise that there exists a discernible process involving the adoption of new products/brand. It starts with a few unique thinkers who identify exiting new products, who are then taken up by people who are opinion leaders and, as a result, all other, slower-to-react customers follow suit.