31st January 2008

Debating the Influencer model: Fast Company debates the "Un-Tipping Point"

posted in Uncategorized |

Several people sent me this article recently knowing my interest on the topic of influentials and their role in networks.

[Ironically, reading some of the discussion this article has spurred makes me think that the article that de-bunks the influencer model actually re-enforces the influencer effect on the topic of how information flows.]

I haven’t made it a secret that I have my own effort underway to author a book on the topic.  In my role the past 5 years at Microsoft I’ve been a central figure in developing, leading and advocating for the importance of finding, thanking and engaging influentials/mavens/experts/advocates/enthusiasts.  I’m guilty of co-mingling these terms which is, I think, contributing to the hubbub about this topic.  The practical side of me resists the semantic debate of tearing these terms apart and trying to define the parameters of each.  For one thing, it’s been done before and didn’t seem to resolve the debate.  For another, it adds complexity which makes understanding the principles and the actions to be taken more difficult.  Now, I’m not advocating laziness here!  This is a complex topic - the issue is in “making it simple, but not simplistic.”

The article focuses on the seemingly opposite views of experts on either side of the influencer debate…and in all fairness, an article that supported the influencer model would hardly be worth publishing - as the prevailing view, writing in favor would hardly be newsworthy.  The primary focus of the article revolves around a profile of Duncan Watts (recent Yahoo researcher and network-theory scientist on sabbatical from Columbia University).  The net of it (which is overly simplified) is that networks matter, but influencers within the network have at best a random impact on adoption/trend launching.  And giving the choice between trying to target market to influentials vs mass marketing that mass marketing is the right choice.   Duncan provides a fair amount of research and simulations to back up his views and I’d say his research is worth reading and understanding.  Not to mention he is colorful in his disagreement with Gladwell.  Find more on Duncan here.

On the “other side” of the debate, the columnist interviewed Ed Keller of Keller Fay and co-author of The Influentials.  This portion of the article highlights a “heated rebuttal” between Keller and Watt’s that occurred last fall at an ARF event. 

Before I go on…some disclosure:  I was at that ARF event as a panelist who followed Ed and Duncan’s “heated debate.”  I’m not sure how or who characterized this as a heated debate.  I think that was part of the intent of the organizers - but it was hardly heated.  It wasn’t heated by west coast standards, much less for New York!  Further disclosure, I have met and co-presented with Ed a few times and have met and talked with Duncan.  I’m also a co-chair of an influencer council recently started by WOMMA - so I have intersected with these individuals and the topic many times.  I was also interviewed for this article by Clive Thompson, but didn’t make the story - I understand why - I wasn’t talking about marketing.

My panelist response to the debate was essentially that I disagree with both of them (which also means I agree with both on some points).  For those that have read my blog for awhile, none of this will come as a surprise. 

Here’s the deal.  Defining influencer strategy with the narrow end-benefit of driving trends/adoption with push based marketing I think is the wrong thing to do.  Whether that alone will work or not probably depends more on how good the product is than on who or how you target.  This is not what interests me around the topic of influentials and I think constrains the research parameters in ways that generate multiple truths.  For example - in Duncan’s simulations, the assumptions are around what I’ll call untouched consumers (they had no previous interaction with the product).  In this scenario, I think Duncan is right, it is luck if you get something to go viral.  Influencers (even in Duncan’s research) can extend the reach, but can’t guarantee success - there are too many other variables in the system so all you can prove is that success is random.  (Note:  Nothing guarantees success, it’s about increasing probability). 

In Ed’s extensive research, he’s demonstrated (and documented in a recommended read:  The Influentials) that an elite 10% of participants in communities are 2-5 times more likely to engage in advice-giving conversations.  Thus, given limited investment dollars to drive word of mouth, influencer based outreach should be a fundamental part of any thoughtful campaign.  Ed also rightfully reminds us that in business there are no guarantees and that strategies that increase probability are generally good business choices vs research simulations looking to pave the final mile. 

The research I’ve been a part of certainly supports a core part of Ed’s conclusion about the most engaged 10%.  We’ve seen time and again what I’d simplistically describe in the following taxonomy for participation in technical communities (1/9/90):

  • <1% of unique participants in a community are essentially “answer people” and contribute in extremely disproportionate quantity (both pure volume and average days active per month).  The side bar here would be that quantity does not always = quality, but again, statistically those that are not contributing quality don’t sustain at this level over time - it is largely self governing and not difficult to parse the noise from the value based contributors.
  • ~9% of unique participants demonstrate similar behaviors as the above elite answerers, but at more modest levels.  This correlates reasonably with Ed’s 10%.
  • ~90 of unique participants lurk/contribute.
  • note:  This taxonomy is admittedly a bit simplified.  I blogged a deeper opinion on taxonomy some months back here.

While the majority of my experience is with tech communities, fellow community managers across many different areas have reported the same general distribution.

This is where I’ll circle back to the trouble with semantics.  What does an influencer influence?  Product awareness/sales?  Product usage?  Product innovation?  An influencer strategy that is designed for maximum benefit has to encompass all of these functions.  As a I wrote earlier, I’m not a fan of the term “influencer marketing” as it generally is used to describe a catalyst for Word of Mouth that assumes information/communication flows in one direction from A to B to C, etc.  This may or may not be the case, but if you want to increase probability (as well as many other business benefits) the flow has to be bi-directional. 

Specific example:  What if your engaged influencers never told anyone about your products, but gave you 10X the feedback on how to improve the quality or relevance of your products.  Is the influencer model wrong?  No - the business goal was different - or at least more complex than one dimension focus on buzz generation.

Net net:  Duncan’s research is interesting and I plan to continue to follow it, but it feels apples to oranges to compare that research to the world of influencer engagement that I support.

Sorry for the long post, I doubt I have yet simplified this topic as of yet…more to consider.


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There are currently 10 responses to “Debating the Influencer model: Fast Company debates the "Un-Tipping Point"”

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  1. 1 On January 31st, 2008, barryd said:

    Maybe it’s down to being British but I don’t like being labelled as an influentials/mavens/advocates. Expert isn’t so bad (and I do Expert Witness work in court, so I can’t object to it that much) and Enthusiast is pretty much how I feel about myself.

    However the problem is not that of the 10%, but of the assumption that floats around them. Part of the reaction I get to the MVP programme is “So you’re doing a job for Microsoft, but not getting paid for it?”. As soon as the 10% is highlighted in some way you have two dangers; 1) their standing as independent in the community is affected (although anyone who has seen me speak knows I’m very vocal about my area’s shortcomings) and 2) the way they are treated by the “products” they are enthusiastic about changes (and I’m sure you’ve heard the complaint from MVPs that certain product teams expect them to act as mouthpieces, at least until they’re beaten with a large clue stick).

    So the obvious marketing question becomes “If 5% of those 10% are 50% praise, 50% critical …. who do we back?” As soon as measurement of effectiveness starts coming into the mix (and business realities of course dictate that it must) there’s a big danger that advocates that may be viewed as independent/maverick from a business perspective, but who will have a greater community standing get ignored; in same way those who simply feed back to a product team with their in the field experiences don’t get enough recognition. I think your point those who feedback is more semantic, it’s down to the assumption that the only valuable influencers are those who influence potential customers, which is a big mistake. Influencing a product team, or a marketing team or anyone else internally to produce a better end product is obviously valuable and should be nurtured.

  2. 2 On January 31st, 2008, Sean said:

    Thanks for the add on Barry. I long resisted using the “I” word and fianlly just accepted it as to not was to be left out of the conversation on how to do it right, but your point is valid. Enthusiast or Expert are better words, but as you peel this back, what makes enthusiasts and expert imporantant is that they influence things. Ack! Semantics. I like your close though and that is the meta point. What ever you want to call the program, if it’s design goal is only about direct influence of potential customers than it is falling short of the point of caring about this topic.


  3. 3 On February 1st, 2008, barryd said:

    Experts? Ah well experts can be expert but not share. I’m part of a small MVP group, that of Visual Tools - Security. We don’t even get our own newsgroup, and the only other person in the UK who is in the group is one of my friends who I run a usergroup with. But it’s hard to share that knowledge, as it’s not neatly packaged into easily digestible chunks. One thing I do think makes us valued is it’s an area where MS get (rightly) bashed; and we don’t pull punches when we present.

    What’s interesting to me, at least today, is serendipity and the objection to descriptions. There’s a thread right now on how “evangelist” is a word with bad connotations. Yesterday my set books for my next university correspondence course on systems theory arrived; it included a copy of Linked (Albert-Laszlo Barabasi). In the introduction he takes an example from the Bible, that of Saul/Paul. Regardless of whether you believe it’s true or not it’s interesting; a man with a previous belief to stamp out the new sect of Christianity upon conversion he used his knowledge of social networks (in the non-”e” meaning) to spread the word; walking 10,000 miles over the rest of his life, targeting large groups and then letting them spread the word to smaller groups. At that time Christianity wasn’t really spreading, the groups were silent due to oppression and fear; so was it Paul and his influence and working of groups that spread the message, or was it the originator, Jesus that did it? You can argue it was Paul, and that’s an interesting lesson, that manufacturers don’t have as much influence as they think they have (and their marketing teams think they deserve, but the ego of marketing people is best left for another day) and that people who are independent and can argue both for and against are those who should be courted, not those who just spout the corporate line.

    (Oh and it annoys me immensely to take some lesson from the bible *grin*)

  4. 4 On February 1st, 2008, jon said:

    Great post — and for a complex topic like this, length is necessary. I think the points you bring up about the differences with the semi-homogeneous community you’re targeting (developers are extremely diverse in some dimensions, but they have a lot more commonality than “consumers” as a whole) and the possibility of different goals. All the research on social, information, and communication networks clearly shows that some people are noticeably more connected than others; ratios like 90/9/1/.1 are often reasonable approximations. These order-of-magnitude differences seem important.

    That said, I incline to share Duncan’s belief that the role of “influentials” is overstated in many ways. First of all, as he points out, the studies are all after the fact — which means that the history being studied is typically filtered through the lenses of the “influentials” who were part of it, reporting on it, and around it at the time; unsurprisingly, this tends to overstate their impact. Also, the people writing the books see themselves as “influentials”, and need to get jacket blurbs and positive reviews from other “influentials”; so there’s a natural tendency to focus on how incredibly important they are. And there’s a huge selection bias: people get identified as influentials based on volume of communications, which tends to favor certain communication styles (and in particular, biases towards men and against women). And so on …

    Which is not to deny the importance of influentials; I just think it’s overstated in many situations.

    In terms of terminology, first of all I completely agree on the problems with the word ‘evangelist’. In much of the world, this is associated with colonialism: assisting corrupt governments, forced conversion, and major deaths of native populations. Heck, this is true even in parts of the U.S. (there’s a statue of Junipero Serra with his arm pointing out at a rest stop on 280 in Silicon Valley, and the joke is that he’s pointing and saying “look, there’s one getting away!”) but it’s an even bigger deal elsewhere in the world.] Particularly for US-based companies, when the rest of the world is sensitive to our countries sometimes-imperialist-appearing attitudes, this really sends the wrong message. Also, the connotations of evangelists include “talking more than listening; is this really the message a large corporation wants to send?

    As for the other terms, I think it’s useful to talk about different roles (expert, hub, connector, catalyst) and having shared vocabularly like Gladwell’s is valuable even if it isn’t cleanly defined. However labeling people with roles is almost always misleading: most people can play multiple roles at different time, and often do so simultaneously.

    Great discussion, thanks for kicking it off!


  5. 5 On February 1st, 2008, Kerry Brown said:

    I think a big part of the problem with tracking how effective influencer programs are is that different types of influencers are involved. In the Microsoft MVP program the influencers are actively vocal about a product. In the case of the Hush Puppies scenario the influencers likely did nothing but use the product and be seen using it. In an active program like the MVP program the influencers are influenced by the program and remain engaged. In a serendipitous event like with Hush Puppies the influencers had very likely quit using Hush Puppies by the time the event was wide spread. Any models would have to take both kinds of influencers into account.

  6. 6 On February 28th, 2008, Teknoloji Blog » Influencers Shminfluencers – a podcast with Duncan Watts said:

    […] Debating the Influencer model: Fast Company debates the “Un-Tipping Point” […]

  7. 7 On April 18th, 2008, Influencers Shminfluencers – a podcast with Duncan Watts · Buy Lead said:

    […] Debating the Influencer model: Fast Company debates the “Un-Tipping Point” […]

  8. 8 On April 28th, 2008, Influencers Shminfluencers – a podcast with Duncan Watts · Auto Lead Generation said:

    […] Debating the Influencer model: Fast Company debates the “Un-Tipping Point” […]

  9. 9 On May 4th, 2008, John Cass said:

    I’ve recently talked to a number of people at several large organizations where the those organizations will respond to customers who write about their organization either negatively or positively. The priority for the organization is the customer rather than say, the influencer. The metric by which the organization measure whether they should contact, is sentiment.

    What’s your experience Sean?

    Did Microsoft use sentiment analysis in finding customers and responding?

  10. 10 On May 6th, 2008, Sean said:

    Yes, Microsoft used several different sentiment analysis providers, but I’d say the brute force effort still overran the tools effort…meaning the sheer # of MS personnel involved in the communities saw more and took more action than the maturity of the tools provided. This could change as the tools improve and aslo the brute force method isn’t very consistent of scale :)

    I would say at MS, it was less about response mgmt to positive or negative and more about just plain outreach with some bias towards influencers but not to the exclusion of general users. Like most things, it depended on the team, the state of the product cycle and other factors - but the motivation was more about engage than about response.


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