Regular readers of my posts here and at BrandSavant know that I have, on occasion, raised questions about various measures of online influence. No, they are not perfect, and in some cases are downright meaningless. Lately, though, I’ve been hearing that still, small voice in my head: “Don’t bring me problems, Webster – bring me solutions.” There are some positive aspects of these measures (Klout’s focus on topics of influence comes to mind), and while the easiest stance to take would simply be to dismiss these measures out of hand, I think it’s more productive to (in the words of former President Bill Clinton) “mend it, don’t end it.”

With that in mind, here are five ideas, ranging from minor tweaks to major overhauls, for improving online influence measurement. These aren’t the only five, I’ll grant you, but that’s what the comments are for, right?

1. It’s All Semantics

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Some of my issues with online influence measures are largely due to semantics. I don’t believe, for instance, that Klout is the “standard for influence,” as their corporate tagline proclaims. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a “there there.” Klout does a very good job measuring the dissemination of messages on Twitter, and differentially modeling the impact upon those messages of various messengers. Klout does not, to my mind, measure “online influence,” but they do measure the effectiveness of individuals at propagating messages on Twitter, by topic. True, there isn’t much of a sexy tagline in that previous sentence, but many of my objections to these various measures would evaporate if they only said what they did, and did what they say they do.

2. Incorporate Web Analytics

This (along with #3, below) would begin to address what I call the “Seth Godin” problem. The number of people more influential on the social web than Seth Godin can probably be counted on just a few hands, but his Klout is 69 and his PeerIndex is only 29 (mine is 45). Seth Godin is not “good at Twitter.” He is, however, a pretty fair blogger, wouldn’t you say? Again, if these various measures are going to purport to gauge online influence, then either their grasp must begin to equal their reach, or they need to adjust their reach (see #1.) Incorporating Godin’s true reach, by factoring in his blog readership, would surely vault his online influence scores towards the top, where they arguably belong.

3. Deeper Blog Insights

Along with measuring the impact of, say, Seth Godin’s actual blog analytics, it would also be interesting and productive to measure the impact of Seth’s blogging on other blogs. It’s one thing to link to his blog, which certainly implies some kind of influence (either positive or negative); it’s another, however, to write a post about Godin’s blog. This very post, in fact, has spilled a lot of E-Ink about Godin, and it could fairly be argued that this in itself is indicative of Godin’s true clout on the web. Not that Chris Brogan, for instance, needs any added online influence, but one of the truest measures of his impact on the social web is not the quantity of retweets that he manages to generate, but the number of people who spend time writing posts in response to Brogan. Retweets are effortless. If, however, I take the time to write a careful (or careless, for that matter) response to another blog post, this is surely a sign of deeper engagement, and influence.

4. Better Text Analytics

Speaking of retweets (which, as I have written before, are not a proxy for trust,) there is altogether too much weight placed upon retweets in these various measures, and not enough attention paid to the character of those retweets. For instance, note the difference between these three hypothetical tweets:

A. RT @AmberCadabra: The Three Teams You Need To Organize And Scale Social Media.

B. Just read @AmberCadabra’s take on the HR restructuring social engagement requires. Is your organization ready? (link.)

C. Wow – we are in the process of setting our HR strategy for 2011, and I just discovered @AmberCadabra’s excellent article. I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me. It was better than Cats. I’ll read it again and again. It was the feel-good post of the winter.

You get the point (and yes, I may have exceeded 140 characters with “C.”) I think text analytics are at the point where the qualitative difference between “A” and “B/C” is readily apparent, and the difference between B and C is certainly within our grasp.

5. Why Not Ask?

The most problematic assumption that online measures of influence make is the assumption of motive. If I retweet someone, why did I do this? Did I do this because they are influential? Because I disagree? Because I am playing “spot the loony?” Mining unstructured data alone will never give you the answer. There are, however, simpler inputs. One might be to incorporate a user-generated influence input to the algorithm – Digg-ing people, in other words. If I see a list of users on one of these services and I disagree with how these users are ranked, I might certainly “vote” some of them up or down to correct this perceived affront. If enough people do this, voting could become a viable input to (but not a replacement for) the various algorithms these services use.

One could also incorporate a polling mechanism. Ask enough people to name the three most influential people in their topic area of interest, and you’ll get a pretty convincing proxy for influence within those topic areas. Again, this wouldn’t negate the behavioral measures, but augment them.

These literally took me a half-hour to brainstorm, so I know you have more ideas. Why not share them in the comments?

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About Tom Webster

Tom Webster

Tom Webster is Vice President of Strategy for Edison Research, sole provider of U.S. National Election exit polling data for all major news networks. Webster has 20 years of experience in market and opinion research, with a particular emphasis on consumer behavior and the adoption of new media and technology. He is the principal author of a number of widely-cited research studies, including Twitter Usage In America, The Social Habit, and The Podcast Consumer Revealed, and is co-author of the Edison Research/Arbitron Internet and Multimedia Research Series, now in its 18th iteration. Reach him on Twitter at Webby2001, or on his blog at BrandSavant.

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.virtuallin.com/ virtuallin

    Wow, just discovered you and really enjoyed this post. I hope to see your ideas made reality! Thank you.

  • http://www.honeybeeconsulting.com startabuzz

    I am seriously conflicted about Klout. On one hand, having some sort of measure is a good thing. For companies trying to figure out where to focus their energies, having a little direction is mightily helpful. On the other hand, the WAY that Klout measures influence is inherently flawed. There is far too great a focus on Twitter. I'm good at Twitter, and as a result, I've got a Klout score that “rivals” most, which is preposterous. The notion that I'm as influential as the good Ms. Nasulnd is patently silly. Also, the focus that people are placing on these scores just seems … wrong. Their existence is taking away from genuine engagement (I see people talking now about following people only if their Klout score is high enough), and I see that as a bad thing. Fiddle dee dee, I say.

    There needs to be SOME way to measure influence, but there are so many factors that developing an algorithm that could do it accurately, with appropriate weight being given to ALL channels of influence, is likely something over which even the most brainiacal mathematician would develop a case of flop sweat.

    • http://twitter.com/webby2001 Tom Webster

      I'd like to thank you for working “flop sweat” into your very thoughtful comment. I think what I am coming around to lies towards the end of your first paragraph – it's the focus people are placing on these scores that requires greater scrutiny. The scores themselves are iterative, are more useful within topic areas than in aggregate, and are what they are. Your clout is high enough for me, I warrant.

      • http://www.honeybeeconsulting.com startabuzz

        It's the little things.

    • http://raulcolon.net Raul Colon

      I think many people including myself agree with Klout being flawed. I honestly don't think they do a good job even with twitter. I have people on the Klout lists that I don't even talk to and supposedly I am influenced.

      A good way to see if someone is engaged is by seeing how many times they tweet Klout Scored of themselves or any other metrics to tell people where they score at. I think in reality genuine engagement is very difficult to measure.

  • http://raulcolon.net Raul Colon

    Definitely deeper blog insights, measuring motives, and polling should be looked into a lot more. Your example on people writing posts on someone regarding their work does really show he influenced that person.

    I run into too many people that are so focus on numbers instead of like “startabuzz” said in the comment below genuine engagement.

    The biggest issue I see is measuring motives people might retweet because they disagree with you does that mean you really influenced them. Or they might have just liked something you retweeted from someone else so who really influenced the creator of the content or the messenger.

    Regarding polling people I guess when you can ask further questions and get a name that would be the best way to see who influences someone. I guess once you get to influence someone you become a source for many topics not just one. Great analysis.

  • http://www.skmgroup.com/ Charlie Riley

    Wow, this post was better than Wicked! Just kidding, great points made about looking beyond Twitter. Klout is definitely flawed, hopefully that VC raised will put funding towards improving it.

  • http://richardrbecker.com/ Rich Becker

    Tom,

    I might suggest repositioning the entire model. The formula people are looking for existed long before social media. The only measure communicators need to be concerned with is the ability to communicate the right message (one that produces intended outcomes) to the largest segment of potential customers possible. Reach is only a portion of that equation, yet that is what everyone seems concerned about lately.

    Sure, most online measures do a fair job at capturing reach, and the quality of the idea or innovation or message has taken a back seat. Sometimes quantifying the value of such is impossible, especially if it goes against traditional thinking and constructs.

    Can you imagine what might have happened had Galileo put his idea out — that the Earth was round on Twitter or Quora — in a world where almost everyone believed the world was flat?

    While none of us can be certain, I doubt it would have improved his Klout score.

    I always appreciate it when people are looking for solutions, I do. But sometimes you can't mend a flawed construct (e.g. the world is flat). You have to end it.

    All my best,
    Rich

    • http://twitter.com/webby2001 Tom Webster

      I can't argue with any of that, Rich – thanks for chiming in here. What I would suggest is that the truth lies somewhere in the kernel of #1, above. The best of these measures, measure *something.* It might not be influence.

      I am aiming to have more Klout than Galileo, by the way. He's not even on Twitter; I think I have a good shot.

      • http://richardrbecker.com/ Rich Becker

        Thanks so much Tom,

        And yes, I did think you nailed it with your first point. There is no influence in influence measurements. They might help measure reach to some extent. The rest is teaching people why reach is a piece.

        Hey, and who wouldn't want more Klout than Galileo? He was round when everyone else was square.

        Best,
        Rich

  • http://www.postadvertising.com Jon Thomas

    Tom –

    I'm with you as far as how current measures of online influence are flawed, especially Klout. As well I agree with your five ideas, particularly the minutia of analytics and how things like follower count and # of ReTweets don't truly measure influence.

    However, are these just “ideas” (which is perfectly fine) or can we try to figure out some actionable ways to improve online influence? It's one thing to say that cars are guzzling gas and exhausting our resources — it's another to propose alternatives like hybrids, vegetable oil, hydrogen, etc.

    Are there solutions now that measure actual ReTweet depth? Do I smell a startup?? ;)

    • http://twitter.com/webby2001 Tom Webster

      There's one I know of, called “SkyNet.” There are other ramifications.

  • mediasres

    Seriously appreciate the quality RT point. There is a substantive difference between a link passed on, and a link with a bit of “essence” in it. RTs need to have that evidence that postings have passed through a person to have penetrative value. What social media is about is generating the “human” color that is added, even in cases of direct information relay.

  • http://www.mblast.com Pat Hurley

    Couldn't agree more, particularly with #2. Where a person with Influence chooses to set up shop and do their writing and Influencing shouldn't matter — only that they have that Influence. So you've got to measure across multiple media including (gasp!) traditional media (e.g., online articles from trade pubs, business pubs, magazines, newspapers, etc.), blogs and (of course) social media.

    The one thing I'd add to your list is ensuring that topicality is taken into account in the measurement. Two people can be very Influential generally within a broad market (like technology), but have very different impact on specific segments under that umbrella. If you're a PR/marketer looking to get a message to your particular audience, the first part of the measurement should be making sure that an Influencer talks directly to that audience and about the things they (and you) are interested in. That's the underlying first step we take with our mPACT product that Jason wrote about the other day…

  • pierreloic

    Great post, Tom!

    I think that Klout does a decent job at measuring, well clout… on Twitter, not influence. I see a subtle but very important difference between clout and influence – and if I'm making it up, blame it on English being my second language :) Clout infers the notion of ubiquitous power of the person: a politician with Clout is a person you want on your side irrespectively of context because he/she is connected to other powerful people and institutions. Influence on the other hand is highly contextual: a person influencing another person is 100% about context and based on how much trust those being influenced place in the recommendation or judgment of those influencing them. How much is Chris Brogan, Klout score of 86, is influencing your stock investments, the music you listen to?

    The idea of measuring influence without accounting for the richness of a person's contribution (ie. not just Twitter) and context is ludicrous and misleading. There's no short cut to handling this complexity and that's the challenge we've taken on at Traackr.

    For more on the intricacies of measuring influence, here are a few slides I presented at a conference in Toronto a few months back: http://www.slideshare.net/pier

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  • http://www.florida-attractions-tickets.com Alisha Andre

    Thank you Tom… as I was aware of the points you mentioned but still they improved my online influence tech tic knowledge.. I think in today's world, its very important that you should be a part online world and a consistent part for personal and business growth…!!!

  • heyrich

    Nice post, Tom.
    Some quick thoughts:

    1) Although I like the folks at Klout, I have to agree. It's one hell of a tagline, but I wish I'd come up with it first!

    2) 3) Yep. You gotta measure it all. Twitter isn't the best source for identifying influence, it's just an easy place to start. In order to get something you can really use, you need to look at measurable actions and relationships that cross platforms. I agree on measuring the effort required for actions. In my mind, RTs and replies are weaker signals than comments, links or blog posts.

    4) Naked RTs aside (they're not my fave), I don't think the language surrounding a tweet is as important as the end result: how much did that person spread the message and add to the conversation?

    5) We considered integrating something like this into Spot Influence (my startup), but decided against it. Since Google doesn't implicitly let the crowd re-rank their results, why should it be different for people? On the plus side, there's a HUGE amount of data to be mined — all of it pointing to the folks at the center of the conversation.

    Would love to talk more. Keep up the great discussion.

    Rich
    @heyrich

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  • http://bodywonders.com xave

    Nice Post. Now I learned something again. This is another useful SEO tips. Thanks for share though.

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  • http://www.careeroutlook.in/part-time-jobs-in-bangalore/ Kevin Clay

    I would like to share that you can use Google alerts for this very effectively, I also want to add that Google alerts allows you to use custom footprints as well :)

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