You Can’t Measure Influence


Measuring influence is like trying to measure friendship.

For a very good reason: We’re all human beings.

And because of that we’re all different.  We don’t process information in the same ways.  We approach ideas and concepts from unique perspectives.  As a result, we are all influenced differently.

That’s why articles or studies that claim to reveal “The 10 Most Influential [Insert Blogger/Tweeter/Vlogger/Social Media Platformer here]” always have me rolling my eyes.

In one of the latest surveys of this sort (see link below), one of the top 10 Twitter accounts for influence is called Breaking News.  Breaking News has 1.9 million followers and aggregates worldwide news from hundreds of outlets.  And there is little doubt that Breaking News is effective in getting people to click links to news stories.  After all, that’s why people sign up to follow it.

But does that count as influence?

Only in a very limited (and shallow) context.

Influence is the ability to shape the development, behavior or character of a person or group of people.  It is the ability to shape policy, law and society.  Getting people to click a link to a news story – from hundreds of disparate news sources – hardly counts as “influence” in the grander scheme of things.

In fact, there is a very good argument that Twitter, by its very nature, cannot influence.  It can direct traffic to those who influence, but the medium itself – because of its limitations – can not shape or change opinion and/or policy.  That’s not to diminish Twitter.  Driving web traffic can be a valuable service (that’s what online advertising does as well) – it is just not influence.

Another problem with measuring online influence goes back to our inherent uniqueness as a species. Popularity doesn’t indicate influence.  People like read and follow clowns and buffoons as well as thought leaders and thinkers.  But just because I follow a blogger doesn’t mean I’ll buy or try something he recommends.  In fact, it could have the opposite effect.

Let me give you a personal example.  I’m influenced by Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist.  His opinions help shape my own on politics and economics.  However, I have a friend who thinks Krugman is completely wrong-headed and doesn’t believe a word he writes.

Krugman influences me.  But he doesn’t influence my friend.  Yet we both read him for completely different reasons.  I read Krugman because he reinforces my own beliefs, but my friend reads him to get a sense of what his political opponents may be thinking.  In a strange way, Krugman also reinforces my friend’s beliefs as well.  Call it de-influence.  You could probably say the same for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and John Stewart.

So how is it possible to measure Krugman’s influence when he shapes the opinion of some, but works to solidify the beliefs of those who oppose him as well?  And frankly, Krugman influences me in politics and economics, but not on entertainment or technology.

It isn’t possible to accurately measure that.

What you can measure is sales, marketing leads, message penetration, online traffic, customer demographics, click-throughs, etc…  But measuring your content’s actual influence as if it were a mathematical formula?

Not so much.

What do you think about the ability to measure influence? Do you think it is possible?

Links:

Jeff Bullas’s post “Who Are the 10 Most Influential Twitter Users in the World?”

Mashable post “How to Measure Online Influence”

Breaking News Twitter account

Can a Tweet Really Influence Behavior?

Paul Krugman

Photo by Juliana Coutinho (via Flickr)

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2 Responses to “You Can’t Measure Influence”

  1. This topic has been a high point of discussion all across the web, and there are some really great points you make. I completely agree with your idea that influence as popularity is a shallow and incorrect way to measuring and even defining it. There is a lot going on in the way of trying to measure influence – we have actually started a series of discovery posts on exactly this topic http://traackr.com/blog/2010/09/no-silver-bullet-to-measure-online-influence-just-hard-work/. While it’s still a work on progress, my thought is that yes, we will eventually find a way to measure influence, however it will probably vary within different industries.

  2. Hi Courtney:
    Influence is too subjective to ever measure with any accuracy. Can you discover which people are thought leaders and well respected in their fields? Of course. But discovering some mathematical equation that ranks influence seems rather daunting and, frankly, a waste of time.

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