THE BLOG
02/06/2014 01:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

Social Influence: More Than Just a Game

Changing Tides: Social Media, Content Overload and Emerging Influence

Before social media, there really was no such thing as an online influencer. The closest things were media outlets that put content online. With the low cost of online publishing, the volume of content increased exponentially.

Since advertising was the primary revenue source during the early days of online publishing, it was in the best interest of web-based companies to place as much content on their sites as possible. More content was thought to result in more impressions or clicks on their poorly-placed banner ads.

That was then. This is 2014.

Today the lines are blurred. Advertisements often are difficult to recognize as media companies and brands have become better than ever at creating content that exceeds the capabilities of movie studios five years ago.

Blogs, video and infographics (over) stimulate consumers' senses. More than 5,000 advertisements get thrown at us everyday, leaving us to attempt to discern the good from the bad, and the useful from everything else. In doing so, we find ourselves encountering more content.

With something like 684,000 Facebook posts, 100,000 tweets and 347 blogs being produced every minute, we officially have reached the point of no return for content overload.

This means brands, businesses and individuals must get smarter if we want our messages to be found, seen and heard.

Enter the age of brand influence.

"When I Grow Up, I Want To Be A Social Media Rock Star":

Before social media, fame was a long shot for the masses.

There was no professional blogger, viral video producer or brand influencer.

Basically, famous people were movie and television stars, musicians, high-profile politicians or professional athletes.

Most people didn't know or care who the CEOs of Fortune 100 companies were before digital content marketing and social media exploded.

Now, just about anybody on the planet willing to make a big enough ass out of himself can have 15 minutes of fame via a viral video.

When I was a boy, I wanted to be an architect, a lawyer or a professional athlete. I'm only 32, but I never once thought, "When I grow up, I want to be a Social Media Rock Star." But being a social media influencer may be the dream job of some kids today.

If you have any doubt as to how relevant a career choice this has become, check out Forbes' list of Top Social Media Influencers.

The side effect created by the rising opportunity for fame on social platforms is the undeniable desire many social media users have for their 15 seconds of online fame.

But the fame isn't the real target; it's the financial opportunities that spawn from the fame. This is where everything changed. It's the idea that, "If only 'I' can be influential then companies will pay me to tweet, blog, share links and drive traffic."

What a business opportunity! And, with this, came a whole series of tactics designed to create influence, both real and just in appearance. It's a line between real and faux influence that is blurred and hard to surmise.

Dunbar's Number Impacts Influence, Validated By Social Media:

Anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, did a study in the 1990s to try and better understand the number of human relationships people could manage simultaneously.

There is a cognitive limit for the number of stable social relationships a person can maintain, Dunbar found. The average human can successfully handle 150 social relationships, according to Dunbar's study.

That number probably seemed pretty reasonable before social media. Between friends, family and colleagues, few people were engaged actively in more than 150 social relationships. More often than not, they probably were involved in fewer than 150 relationships. Time and space alone would have limited severely the numbers from growing beyond that amount.

It isn't uncommon in the age of social media for people to have thousands of friends on Facebook, connections on LinkedIn and followers on Twitter. These people comprise the digital "online" community.

Many social media "experts" talk about the importance of maintaining active engagement with your community in order to build stronger relationships, earn support and grow influence.

This is because trust is built when you exude competence and show compassion for those with whom you choose to connect. However, with many people trying to do this with thousands of other humans, is this sort of genuine engagement even possible?

The raw numbers people carry in their social networks would indicate that such broad engagement to a larger social ecosystem is possible. However, if you watch how people behave online, you will see that most often those with these extraordinarily large online communities only genuinely communicate with a handful of the people. This serves as further validation that we really can't have such a large number of genuine relationships.

This begs the question, is this genuine desire to create massive communities rooted in authenticity, or an underlying desire to appear influential?

Authentic Influence Wrapped Up in Reciprocity:

Pam Moore started a terrific conversation last week on Facebook on the topic of influence.

She reached out to a close group of successful social media and digital marketing professionals, as well as to her Facebook network, asking them for help. (This is a great approach, by the way.)

She wanted to understand why people tout influence they're actually "buying." She referenced online activities such as Empire Avenue and Google+ circle tricks to give appearances that people have a greater reach and influence than they actually have.

Here is her post:

Gaming Influence Pam Moore

 

This terrific post raised an important question. In a day when so many people are wielding various levels of influence, how much of this influence is perceived versus real?

The post yielded a tremendous response. This was a side effect of Pam being quite influential, and the fact that her subject matter was controversial.

The purists immediately aligned with her post, whereas those utilizing a certain amount of the tactics she considered "game" were defensive.

In the end, a thoughtful discussion occurred with some intelligent people presenting their sides. For instance Mark Schaefer, whom I admire, made a great point about influence and the importance of meaningful relationships. He wrote:

Gaming Influence Mark Schaefer

 

I also chimed in with this:

 

Gaming Influence Daniel Newman

 

I found myself questioning what makes one activity "gaming" influence and another genuine?

I wrote last year about a number of early social media adopters who followed hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter based on reciprocal follow backs only to purge their entire following in a day. Basically going from a group who built their following on the backs of a common "follow for follow" practice, and then unfollowed to make themselves appear more like celebrities.

Their tactics to grow their followings were well accepted and still are used today. When they unfollowed everyone, they basically claimed it was for convenience. But, we all know that people rarely watch their entire Twitter stream. So the real reason was obviously for appearances. More or less, "If I look like a celebrity, then people will treat me like one."

For the most part, those who took part in this "purge" saw more good than harm and have continued to succeed in social space.

But why isn't the "follow for follow" reciprocity considered gaming influence?

If you know that thousands of your followers are only following you because you follow them, how much real meaning do those numbers have?

The desire to reach further and influence more people continues today. People buy fake followers on Twitter and likes on Facebook. This goes for other platforms, too, like Triberr, where people share your content if you share theirs. Also, on influence measurement sites like Klout, you see people trading +K (Klout's influence measure) to make one another look more influential. It's all much like what LinkedIn is doing with endorsement. Sadly, this type of self-serving gamification seems almost endless.

Part of influence is having active, genuine, two-way relationships with people. But, if the people we influence because of social relationships are limited to a few hundred (max), don't we almost "buy" our influence to some extent when we span beyond that number?

Did You Make The List?

Another example I just couldn't ignore is the perpetual Top "X" list gaming.

I see blogs come out every day with lists of the Top 10, 20 or 50 (Best, Coolest, Smartest) people in relation to things like social media, blogs, sites, leadership, etc.

Some of these articles are written by bonafide media companies, but the lists are so darn subjective, you can only wonder about the metrics.

You tell me you have the list of the 100 Most Influential People on Twitter and I better not EVER make the list. However, somehow I did.

Why was I listed? I would like to think it is because of my influence, but I can't help but think it was because I know the author. While the intention of the article was good, half the list was comprised of the author's friends. The list was merely opinion and was really just link bait.

If you ever want to get 50 comments on a blog post, just write a list of the 50 most "important" (non-celebrity) people in any field, then Tweet them that they made the list. You are certain to get a: "Thank you, I'm so humbled," type of response from each of them.

They probably are humbled, but that doesn't mean they belong on the list nor does it mean you were qualified to write it.

People create this kind of content because they know it will be well shared and it will get good response. Both of those things are key to driving influence because, when brands seek out people who can spread their gospel, the numbers matter, perhaps more than they should.

As the co-founder of 12 Most, I understand the value of lists and link bait for driving traffic. The bottom line is: I don't really care if you use these tactics to drive traffic, I just want people to admit what they are doing, whether it works or not.

Drawing Lines In The Sand: Does It Matter Where Influence Originates?

Maybe what I wonder more than anything else is does it even matter where influence comes from once you have it?

Think of it this way.

When big corporations launch new products, nobody knows about them. However, they are stacked with financial resources so they buy advertising. They place ads in magazines, newspapers, online and on television to quickly grow visibility for their new products and services.

Suddenly their unknown product becomes known and, often, sales follow.

Is it really different with people on social media platforms? A person decides they want to be an important name in social media, so they buy visibility, sponsored posts and likes on Facebook. They use tools like "follow for follow." Then, when they get the numbers to where they want them, they unfollow everyone. Heck, they can even pay great writers to create content for them, so they can become a topical thought leader (trust me, this happens).

If they are willing to spend enough money and time, they may be able to grow massive reach in short order.

You know what else?

The influence they create may be real.

That doesn't make them a good person or authentic or engaging. However, it doesn't mean they are a bad person either. In fact, they may just be a great, authentic and engaging person who figured out how to short-circuit the process of building online influence. Who is to say?

When it comes to influence, I'm not sure that matters. We are talking about the ability to reach an audience.

This is exactly what advertising has done for years. It has worked for products, and it has worked for people.

So, should there be a line in the sand? While it may make those who built their brand the old fashion way happy, I'm not sure it is relevant when it comes to the topic of influence.

There Are No Shortcuts For Being a Good Person, But There May Be Some for Influence:

Perhaps Jessica Northey said it best in her response to Pam's question on gaming influence:

gaming Influence Jessica Northey

 

If nothing else, she boiled it down to something simple.

In the end, we are all people, and our ability to help brands and clients comes down to how far we can reach with the content we produce on our blogs, social media and other platforms.

The important thing brands must realize is that there are people who can influence and move messages and there are some who cannot.

Even crazier is that the same person may be great for one company, and terrible for another. That is just the way it goes.

We can debate the means for gaining influence until we are blue in the face, but we never will reach a consensus.

For people looking to build their individual brand and wield influence online (or really anywhere), the most important realization is that there may be shortcuts but most of them don't drive real influence.

Fake followers won't share your message. People who merely share your content because you share theirs likely won't be there to help share an important idea or brand message that you need to reach a wider audience.

Perhaps Dunbar's number has more impact than we would like to admit. Maybe it comes down to really having that close knit community that believes in your message and wants to share it. Then it is merely degrees of separation to drive influence to a wider audience. In essence, it is influencing the influencer.

Whether the influence you wield is earned, bought or a combination of both, the real question comes down to the message.

What are you trying to convey, and can you drive those who consume your content to take action? The numbers rarely lie, and they, unlike so many other subjective dialogues, can be measured.