Schools of Influence: Which One Is Right For You?

There are two prevailing schools of thought about influence nowadays:

1. You have to be in the community to know the influencer. Let’s call this the old school way of thinking.

2. You can know the influencer before knowing the community. With the help of tools like Klout or PeerIndex that index users’ influence scores, this is now possible. Let’s call this the new school way of thinking.

As more marketing strategies shift importance towards driving influential conversations to a target audience that’s less receptive to advertising, it’s helpful to know which school of influence is right for you.

What’s good and bad about each philosophy? Let’s make a case for both sides:

Old School Philosophy

People from this camp say, “This is the way it’s always been done. It’s all about relationships and knowing people in the right niches. You have to know a guy who can influence the community from the inside.”

The methodology here is to ‘own’ (read: nurture) a network of relationships within the industry or category of interest. You might employ an agency to help you bridge these relationships or you might build a community management team to grow these relationships over time. Owning these relationships is your competitive advantage to leveraging influence.

The drawback to this approach is that it’s not scalable. The era of hyperactive social media has empowered more people to promote themselves and create their own like-minded tribes. Your potential set of influencers is much larger than it used to be and it’s difficult to keep up with the growth by only looking at the relationships you own. There are many more influential fish in the sea that you do not know.

New School Philosophy

People from this camp say, “This is the new way of tapping into influence. It’s all about using the data available from tools to identify influencers in social media. I can find and contact a larger base of potential influencers without the requirement of knowing everyone personally. Connecting with 10 small influencers is more valuable than 1 big one.”

The methodology here is to spark relationships across many different clusters, which I call the long tail influencers. With the help of tools like PeerIndex or Klout you can search for influencers based on various parameters of audience reach, user activity, and topic relevance. In the new school, influence is driven by clusters of micro-communities, rather than by a single leader. These influencers further down the long tail are more ‘accessible’ (read: easier to talk to) than celebrities and major media outlets, and yet equally influential within their immediate, albeit smaller, circle of friends. You just have to know how to find them.

The drawback is that the leading tools in influence measurement still use an old school lens to measure the new school landscape. If influence happens in long tail clusters, tools like Klout and PeerIndex should focus less on defining an individual’s influence and focus more on defining a cluster of influence around particular topics. For example, let’s examine the Klout profile of Faris Yakob, an influencer of the advertising industry. I’m less interested in knowing that he’s influential about advertising and more interested in knowing about the clusters of influence around advertising. Tell me about the micro-communities that surround this massive topic!

Which School of Influence Is Right for You?

We’re at a pivotal time in social media where users are connecting with an equal amount of real friends as they are with people they’ve never met before. This movement already tipped in China a few years ago. Our online connections are getting wider but our passionate communities are getting more niche. New social platforms like Google+ further embrace this behaviour by offering different circles for different levels of connection.

Because of this, old and new school philosophies will inevitably collide. We will need the old school connections to access legacy leaders of the tightly knit communities and the new school instruments to search and discover the many new clusters of community influencers being formed.

In the meantime, ask yourself these questions to understand which school of influence works best for you:

1. Quality vs. quantity?

If your potential base of influencers is large, lean towards the new school and search down the long tail. If it’s small and niche, lean towards the old school approach and look for key relationships.

2. Difficulty of access?

If the community is difficult to join based on the level of intellect and passion (e.g., software developers), lean towards the old school. If the community is relatively open to newcomers (e.g., foodies), lean towards the new school.

3. Desired action?

If your desired action from the community is light engagement (e.g., sharing a link or video), lean towards the new school. If you want heavier involvement (e.g., creating content or changing beliefs), lean towards the old school.

So, are you old school or new school?

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