Why Everything you Know about Influence is Wrong

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Last week we talked about the five influence traps you must avoid. For this leg of the conversation on influence, we'll be reviewing the theory of the few.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about connectors, mavens, and salespeople. He shared stories to demonstrate that in essence individual action and strong ties work together to confer different kinds of super hero powers to connectors, mavens, and salespeople.

Paul Revere started a word-of-mouth epidemic for the message about the British invasion — people believed him and sprung to action. From the book, connectors know more people and more of the right kinds of people. Paul Revere was a connector, he got the message out.

Mavens are all about information. And they aren't passive about that information. In the book, there is the example of a maven wanting you to know about deals, because they have all kinds of good tips and knowledge on products and services.

Then there are salespeople (Gladwell calls them salesmen) who have the skills to persuade others. Through a combination of verbal and non verbal cues, salespeople are skilled at making you feel at the center of the room, and all the ideas are coming from you.

Connectors know lots of people and want to tell them stuff, mavens know lots of things and want to educate others, salespeople know a lot of the right stuff to do with people to persuade them.

Although this is a fairly accurate documentation of how things went down in the cases and studies Gladwell chronicles, it is quite linear. It doesn't take into account the complexity of the interactions people have daily where there are characteristics of each at play with individuals, nor does it address the group aspects of those interactions.

Both are important to you, if you want to understand how true influence flows.

It gives you little information as to how these people got there, what shaped them, and most importantly, why — what made them choose to take one action over another when they did. It thus becomes an elitist view of the world, which ends up being unhelpful to you; you either appeal to them and get them to act on your behalf, or you don't. It's not a zero-sum situation at all.

Modern marketers, on the other hand, say influence is democratic. Everyone has it, or can potentially gain it online, as we discussed when we talked about the tools. Everyone is influential and has equal standing with online and offline communities. Which, of course, while desirable, is not accurate.

To understand why, we'll take a short detour into the work of Duncan Watts, principal research scientist at Yahoo Research.

In a study conducted when at Columbia University, Duncan Watts concluded that the size of a cascade or effect initiated by influencers is not significantly larger than those initiated by ordinary people. This observation was validated by the conditions under which the simulated of how influence moves through networks was conducted.

The paper describes the measurement used to document the size of this cascade or effect: “When all activations associated with a single cascade have occurred, its size can be determined simply as the total cumulative number of activations.”

This theory contends that timing and influence, combined, demonstrate the power of weak ties (Mark Granovetter called it strength of weak ties), those myriad weakest connections that are the most powerful in disseminating information. Thus, the network theory dictates that it's both individual behavior and interaction that make up influence.

Which brings up the six degrees of separation.

It's a small world and what goes around comes around, as the saying goes.

I'm over simplifying here. Much research and thought continue to be put into figuring out what helps spread things — including diseases. Everyone is trying very much to figure out how those mechanisms and dynamics can be leveraged to help spread marketing messages — what is the shortcut, the code, where should you start?

On the practical side of things, all you want to know, all every organization is looking for, is a way to get to those influencers who matter in their world — and to do that quickly, and cost effectively. And here's the tricky part: their world may be defined differently by each internal stakeholder — and it will be different than that of your customers.

Unless your business is truly customer-centric, in which case every group sees itself as integrated with the other to serve the customer, who is at the center, you still have a fragmented view of what and who you consider influential.

How does each stakeholder inside your organization view influence? How does each expect outreach to occur? What is an ideal world scenario? What are the results or outcome each hopes to achieve? Is that what you actually measure?

Next week, we'll see how you can "up your score" when it comes to true influence.

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0 responses to “Why Everything you Know about Influence is Wrong”

  1. Who was the greatest influencer in the history of the world? Be honest now. You may not like the answer but it can not be denied. You want Klout model your life after His. Period.

  2. Interesting perspective. Are you only talking about influence within an organization? If you’re also referring to brand marketing I’m not sure I agree. We (Marina Maher Communications) are about to release a study that shows a cascade of news and ideas from brands to consumers through several tiers of influencers — and then an echo effect back up to the brand. Unfortunately I can’t share details yet but I’d be happy to send our executive summary when we’re ready to release it. Let me know if you’re interested.

  3. Debra:
    aside from the fact that I actually don’t say what influences people from a marketing perspective in this post, and that I would not be talking about something I have not built and done for years, was the purpose of this comment to tell me about your study? In that case, may I suggest a more relational execution?

  4. It’s a great post Valeria. Love the Paul Revere analogy; it makes the word-of-mouth concept crystal clear. Duncan Watts’ conclusion is interesting — though I want to dig into that a little more — it reminds me of the butterfly effect.

  5. Some good food for thought. I like how you highlighted the fact (or at least alluded to the fact) that different internal stakeholders in organization might have a different idea of who influencer is. And his causes all sort of issues.
    Great to meet you yesterday,

  6. My apologies Valeria. Looking back at my post, it was a bit ambiguous. I think you would agree a significant way to press into this “influence” dialogue is to look at men and women of influence down thru the ages. What made them tick? What was their effect? The most influential person ever in humanity is no question Jesus Christ. Dude had serious Klout. We could learn somethings from looking at how he lived. 😉

  7. Hi –
    Geno Church (Brains on Fire) and I have had several interesting discussions about WOMM and the historic record of lives of both Jesus and Buddha when we were trying to think of who was the first and also the most successful WOMM practitioner. As an aside, it’s also a very interesting parlor game to apply the various modern WOMM measuring schemes to what we know about the spread of both Buddhism and Christianity.
    While I’m here, let me segue into use of the term “Klout” as a noun or adjective. “Klout” is a proprietary system to measure someone’s online influence. It would be interesting to know if the two people who used “Klout” as a word in their posts worked for that company. It would also be interesting to know if Jesus or Buddha have much “Klout” given that the company would measure Jesus’ or Buddha’s ability to get people to perform an action based on on-line conversations that they have.
    Finally, Duncan Watts work is highly suspect as he built both the model and assigned the assumptions that drove the conclusions. Everyone knows you can create a computer program that will spit out any conclusion that you want. The years of real world data generated by firms like MotiveQuest and KellerFay contradict many of Watt’s conclusions as does the real world WOMM success stories of brands like PBR, Crocs shoes and Google.
    Looking forward to future discussions.
    Ted Wright

  8. Hi,
    Interesting post, but i must admit i am little lost on two things: Theory of the Few and True Influence.
    I do agree with Ted in that Watts theories and methods are highly suspect.
    Influence is probably one of the most complex human conditions we know and most people only scratch the surface on understanding it.
    I would be curious as to your further explanations on the first points.
    Cheers and thanks for the thinking!
    Jeff – Sensei

  9. @mediasres — glad you enjoyed the choice.
    @Frank — although Watts research is held with suspect, his observation does add to the conversation on true influence.
    @Scott — good to have the opportunity to connect. Organizations would run more smoothly if interests were aligned, even with differing points of view.
    @Jack — I’m sure it was crystal clear in your head, we do that sometimes 😉 The problem is that people consider influence something you are vs. something people confer you within a specific context/situation/circumstance.
    @Ted — the use of the company name, as I wrote in my last post, is twofold a) it’s a good name, which means people will use it as a shortcut to mean clout; b) they were first off the gate and got lots of conversations going, so people transfer the concept to the company. Something I observed with other brands in other conversations over the years. Signs and symbols are used as shortcuts all the time. I’m really glad you’re pointing that out, because a lot of modern conversations about social are highly suspect in the same way… glad you fund the exposition here compelling enough to join the conversation for everyone’s sake.
    @Jeff — and scratching the surface we do on most issues that affect the human condition. True influence does not reside with just a chosen few. Hope this helps clear things for you.

  10. It’s interesting because Gladwell tried to apply the Weak Ties argument to social change on the web with his controversial New Yorker article. Yet research from Pew is showing social networking provides stronger ties for people, and the recent Tunisian Revolution — by revolutionaries, not Twitter — also demonstrate the stronger ties online. Point being, Gladwellian influence theory may need an update.

  11. We were discussing it in the context of the new generation recently. Natives to technology do not distinguish between face to face and online connections as much as we did. In fact, they consider those interactions to be as binding and important as those offline. Hence my caveat in the post. The other reason why those concepts need updating is the group behavior. We’ll keep peeling back the layers in this conversation as we approach the live interaction.

  12. Tautology cannot replace proof. Though what you say sounds good why should it be believed? Reliance on the definitions of fictional writers like Malcom Gladwel and using research (Watts) that falls flat in the peer review does not add credibility. I guess what I am asking is that is this post based on your research / study or is this your worldview based on your experiences?

  13. @Daniel — thank you for stopping by.
    @Nitin — and technology cannot replace humans. You are free to believe what you want. I find your use of the term “credibility” fascinating in light of the fact that you offer nothing in return. Critical thinking is built upon exploration of ideas, and indeed facts. Where is your data? Where is your willingness to exploration? Illuminate us. Lead. This is a blog post, not a thesis. I wrote a thesis, there is a big difference, don’t you think?

  14. Thanks for inspiring, I will write a series of blog posts in the spirit of sharing and exploration and will share them with you.The conversation shall go on.

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