Is There a Standard for Measuring Social Influence?

Have you heard about Klout? What do you think? Do you think it can measure social influence? Many people have asked me these questions many times.

Social media is a game changer as it is going mainstream. Social media has turned marketing communication upside down! While traditional advertising is about reaching the mass audience and hoping that a small group of audience will buy the product. From the marketing perspective, social media is about reaching the small group of influencers and hoping that they will spread the word to influence others to consider buying the product. Since it is a very different approach, the ability to reach the influencers is one of the key success factors for marketing using social media.

Klout seems to be a simple and closest way to identify influencers and measure social influence as of today. However, I do not agree that Klout is the standard because it oversimplifies measuring social influence. Coming from a scientific background, I understand social influence is a lot more complicated than a simple score.

Social media should be represented and modeled as social network. In fact, it is a hopelessly complex network system with unlimited number of nodes passing information though their connections according to protocols that are not clearly defined. Social influence refers to how far and how fast information is spread on the social network to influence another’s action and behaviour. Yet, measuring and predicting social influence is still at the exploratory phase of scientific research, and everyone is experimenting different things in different ways.

Among all different approaches and theories, I think Dr. Michael Wu, principal scientist at Lithium Technologies’ model provides the best explanation for social media influence because it is simple, logical, and practical. Dr. Wu suggests that social influence includes two entities: the influencer and the target, and there are six key factors including the influencer’s credibility, influencer’s bandwidth, relevance (the right information), timing (the right time), alignment (the right place), and confidence (the right person).

Klout assigns an influence score to a person and thereby oversimplifies the measurement of social influence. The score only measures the ‘influencer’ side without considering other factors of influencing the target (right information, right time, right place, and right person). In my view, there is no universal influencer. For example, President Obama is a highly influential person, but he has no influence on my fashion choice. An individual with a high score does not mean anything and it all depends on the context of the communication and interaction. Measuring social influence requires modeling of complex dynamics of information flow and interactions that individuals influence each other’s behaviour and decisions. It does not make sense to be represented with a single constant number on the ‘influencer’ side only.

And the most important question is – what is the score used for?

I perceive that the score is more like one of the gamification techniques to make registered users improve their ‘achievements’, like how Foursquare users collect badges. Although it does not appeal to everyone, I still think it is a very successful business model with over 100 million users being scored by Klout. It has created a platform for marketers to easily identify and target influencers.

What does it mean from the marketers’ perspective? The Klout score can be a good reference number, which is better than using the number of followers. However, it is definitely not a metric because it does not relate to any business objective. Marketers always want something easy to understand; but do not be lazy and naive to believe a simple score for social influence, as it is lot more complicated.

There is no one standard methodology to measure social influence that is suitable for all businesses. Similar to customer loyalty, each business is unique and has its own way to measure customer loyalty such as using loyalty points, usage or purchase amount, and then it has to segment and reward customers accordingly.

I always emphasise on getting back to the basic principles regardless of whether it is social media, advertising, or CRM; we should start from the business objectives and work our way down to measure the effectiveness of the marketing spend and business impact, and there is no shortcut.

Disclaimer: Dr. Michael Wu, principle scientist of Lithium Technologies is my personal friend and I do not have any business relationship with Lithium.

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