In the race to determine who the most effective social media influences are, Facebook just pulled far ahead of the competition. If you didn't know there was a race going on, now you do - and after 4 years of waiting for a patent, the tortoise is back in the lead! Facebook was recently granted a patent, that the company had filed back in 2011, entitled "Identify influencers and experts in a social network." The patent is exactly what it sounds like, a new method of discerning which influencers are the most effective. Facebook will then be able to directly target these select people with advertisements, charging companies a substantial amount of money in the process.
Facebook is not the first to achieve an influencer-marketing patent. Other tech giants such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft all have their own patents in this same category. The difference, and the aspect that seems much more likely to make Facebook's method more effective, is in the technique used to identify the most important people. Google's method looks at volume of connections, Yahoo's examines how influential a person's followers are, and Microsoft's attempts to assemble a group of influencers with the largest unduplicated audience.
The common denominator that all these methods share is the use of connection count as a proxy for influence, instead of measuring influence itself. In other words, they base influence on the number of connections a person has, not how effective they are. And let's be honest, having a ton of connections doesn't mean much if they are shallow. As a business owner, ask yourself: who would you rather target - the Twitter user with 300,000 followers who rarely retweet any of his material, or the Twitter user with 30,000 followers who almost always retweet his material? An easy decision when the goal is to have your content shared as much as possible.
Number of followers is only half the battle in determining influence. Many people have the ability to gather a large number of followers. It's the influencers whose followers are the most active in sharing content that are most valuable to advertisers. Facebook's patent is for a method that actually measures whose followers re-shared the content, allowing Facebook to find the influencer who is the nucleus of the social media network.
In official patent-speak, Facebook's method "comprises identifying the first users who caused the non-zero rate of sharing of the element of information to locally increase significantly." In other words, Facebook watches the rate at which a particular piece of content is shared, and then tracks the content back to its roots to figure out whose post led to an abrupt increase in the share rate in their network.
With all of the time, money and effort spent on determining how to pinpoint the most effective influencers, you have to wonder whether they are worth all of this trouble. Of course Facebook wants us to believe that social media influencers are an invaluable marketing resource, but are they really? Companies undoubtedly seem to think so. And they are shelling out time, money, free services, and more to gain access to these influencers' legions of loyal followers.
With some social networks, influencers seem to be advertisers' only way in - take Instagram for example. The popular network has over 200 million users who share more than 20 billion photos - a seemingly perfect platform for brands to connect with a captive audience, and the opportunity to do it with spectacular visuals. But Instagram users are notoriously resistant to direct advertising on the site, putting companies in a position where they have to resort to influencers to reach this coveted audience. And with younger generations gravitating toward media in the form of images, companies would be remiss to pass up the opportunity.
Now that companies will be able to see who the influencers with the most reach are, perhaps they will invest more wisely. Although it is difficult to directly correlate the success of influencers in terms of actual sales numbers.
While the focus surrounding Facebook's new methodology centers on the potentially lucrative opportunities advertisers will gain, no one seems to be considering the impact this patent will have on influencers themselves. How will influencers feel about being hyper-targeted? Select influencers will probably enjoy the significant financial opportunities companies are likely to present them with. But that financial gain could come at a price, especially considering a large following today is not guaranteed to last. Influencers who continually succumb to company advertisements risk losing sway over their loyal followers. After all, who considers an infomercial a trustworthy influencer? The more company stamps/badges a person has, the more they are likely to read sell-out as opposed to thought leader.
Whether Facebook's new-patented method results in major financial gain for companies has yet to be seen. Facebook may be able to advertise directly to the "right" people, but they have no control over what influencers choose to do with the information received. Perhaps Facebook's hyper-targeting could even result in a backlash from influencers who might resent their endorsement constantly trying to be bought. Only time will tell but either way Facebook is sure to profit, so I suppose some things never change.