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Popularity, Influence and Social Circles

Happy new year everyone!!

I've been meaning to write a post on the idea of online influence for a while, but every time I think I have all my thoughts in order I think of something else I want to say. This morning though, I read a great article in Advertising Age about the difference in popularity and influence and it really seemed to be on the same thought wave that I am about the whole concept. It really got my mind racing, so I thought today would be the day to sit down and bang this out.

A lot of people in the social media community seem to be talking a lot about 2011 being the year of "influence". The only problem, in my opinion, is that no one really has the concept down properly. And that's probably not just my opinion, as a lot of people have been up in arms after hearing that Klout, a company that measures online influence, claimed that Justin Bieber is one of the most influential people in social media. According to the way Klout ranks influence though, it's absolutely true (and they back up their statement well here) To me, I see the problem as this not being the true idea of influence.

Now don't get me wrong. I have nothing at all against Klout. I've participated in one of their campaigns and loved it. I've had the Klout people guest moderate on my #smmeasure chat. I even met a couple of the Klout employees here in Toronto and keep in touch with them. When we met, I spoke with Megan Berry and I believe that Klout really is intent on constantly refining their process for determining online influence. However, for now and from how I understand their metrics to work, it plays off a bit more like online popularity.

To me, the difference between popularity and influence comes from an internal motivation. Liking and respecting someone are different than being influenced by them. We as people like a lot of stuff. It's part of our human way of classifying things so that we can understand. One of the easiest classifications for us is "things I like" and "things I don't like". Things we like we tend to pay attention to and things we don't like we tend to ignore.

In the online world there is so much stuff floating around and we tend to be drawn to search out the things we like. This includes web pages, products and even people. In social media we tend to follow people we like, people we respect and people we think are interesting or have interesting ideas. Some of these people seem to have large followings because they do embody one of these categories. These people are popular. Are they influential though?

To some people, yes. But I think to a majority of people they are popular and because of that are likely to have more people hear what they have to say. They have the ability to make sure thousands or even millions of people hear what they have to say, which is great, but just because I hear you doesn't mean you necessarily influence me.

To me, influence means that I trust someone enough to have their thoughts and opinions actually motivate me to do something. The key for me is the word "trust". When I really deeply trust someone I let their thoughts affect my own. And trust, I mean real trust, takes time to build. This is why I think the only real influence we get as people come from our trusted social circles and not some of the big "talking heads" we like to read online.

An example I like to use while talking about this with people is the online wine community. There is no doubt that Gary Vaynerchuk is one of, if not the most, popular online wine aficionados. People all over the world watch his Wine Library TV to see what he has to say. However, while Gary may bring new and interesting wines to the world's attention, does he necessarily influence what people think of wines?

In what I know of the world of wine (which really isn't too much) I've found that wine lovers are small communities of friends and acquaintances that like together and sip wine. They are usually like minded people who trust each others opinions and thoughts. These people influence each other on their wine thoughts. While Gary Vaynerchuk may bring new wine to their attention, it's when someone in their social circle recommends the wine that really gets people to act on it (in this case it would be buying or trying a wine).

It's through these much smaller social circles that I think real influence comes from. These social circles are made up of people whom we like, respect and most importantly trust. The trust is the key to motivation, meaning influence. I think that that if marketers and communications people really want to get a handle on influence they will need to find ways to penetrate these smaller social circles and reach out to the people there rather than go for the big popular talking heads.

I also want to point out here that I do think that popularity does have a part in the role of influence, but not nearly as much as a concept like trust does.

Going back to Klout, I think that they are working on ways to find these people that are influential within these smaller social circles. A problem they face though is that a lot of these social circles exist more offline than they do online. It's not to say that they aren't online, but there is something that these offline bonds have that just isn't found as much online.

In the meantime though, are a lot of people still going to see what popular people like Justin Bieber and Gary Vaynerchuck have to say? Of course. But are these people really having true influence over those that hear what they have to say? I don't think so. They may turn our heads to something we previously didn't know about, but true motivation to do or buy something new will come from inside of us and our feelings of trust towards who is telling us.

I know personally I trust my actual friends a lot more than the word of someone I've never met or spoken to but follow on Twitter.

And that's my rant on the idea of online influence. What do you think? Are we ever going to be able to truly measure the idea of influence?

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