On Influence

by Tom Webster |
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I don’t watch a ton of TV, but I do have a few favorite shows. I love AMC’s new series, Rubicon. I watch a lot of Top Chef with my five-year old, because he likes cooking and I like Padma. I generally catch Bri-Wi when I’m home.

So here’s a test: I’m going to name five shows, and I want you to rank them in order of popularity. Ready?

NBC Nightly News
Top Chef
American Pickers
The Closer
Mad Men

Where would you go to find this information? Why, the folks at Nielsen, of course, who measure this sort of thing. Here’s what they had to say (ranked by estimated total audience for last week):

The Closer: 7,209,000
NBC Nightly News: 7,170,000
American Pickers: 4,866,000
Top Chef: 2,898,000
Mad Men 2,312,000

Any surprises to you? I was actually most surprised by The Closer – I knew it was a hit, but those are pretty good numbers for a cable show. Now, all of these numbers are estimates, but they are reasonably good ones – the folks being measured worked with Nielsen to come up with a solution that benefited everyone – not a “black box,” proprietary algorithm, but a good, solid sampling methodology. Why bother? Well, knowing how many persons watched a given show at least demarcates the boundary for how many of them saw a given commercial message, and that’s a pretty important thing for both the networks AND advertisers to know.

Here’s another question: if The Closer is three times more popular than Mad Men, why would anyone advertise on the latter when the former has a significantly greater audience? Again, a simple answer: both parties measured something that matters – the composition of their audiences – so that products and services that were more appealing to Mad Men audiences (like the Chase Sapphire card) were shown during Mad Men. Context is an important part of engagement, and it’s all in the service of optimizing a limited ad spend. Again, all pretty proven and basic stuff here.

So, a third question: Which of the five shows is the most influential? What do you think? Let’s say for a moment that you believe Mad Men is the most influential TV show on my list. Influential how? Influential to whom? And in what context?

What does influential even mean?

By itself – nothing, of course. Influence requires an actor, action(s) and a context. Mad Men is arguably not more influential than The Closer, but Mad Men might resonate more strongly with you, and that resonance might make you more receptive to other things by association. That receptivity, in turn, is measurable in both overt and subtle ways. Did Mad Men influence me to change my Twitter avatar for a while? Definitely. Did it influence me to start smoking? Definitely not. Did it influence my martini consumption? Maybe. OK, definitely. You get the point. (The same is true of people, by the way. Is Barack Obama more influential than my wife? If you are married, you know this is a trick question.)

Devoid of a specific context, actors and actions, how would you arbitrarily measure whether or not Mad Men is more influential than, say, American Pickers? You could hazard a guess (let’s say, “3X,” which I’ve rectally derived), recite a few anecdotes or perhaps provide some other qualitative measures. You could total the mentions of both shows on various social media platforms, and even index them, if you’re clever. But there’s no way to check your work. Despite decades of measuring reach, frequency, demographics, psychographics and now engagement, there isn’t a Nielsen “Influence” rating. There isn’t an influence rating for a very simple reason – it would be really hard to figure out correctly, and figuring it out would net you very little in return. It isn’t a salable metric. All that matters to the advertisers on Mad Men is this: how many people saw my ad, who were they, and what happened as a result.

In fact, almost any use case for an influence measure is really a proxy for something else you’d rather measure: a purchase, an increase in loyalty, a shift in awareness or attitude, or the movement along a continuum from awareness to consideration to information-seeking to conversion. So we measure those things instead. Where influence may matter is with a specific life group – are we “moving the needle” with empty nesters? Young wealth acquirers? Recent retirees? In every case, however, a measure of influence is really a measure of something else (“the needle”), and that measure is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a context.

Influence is a derivative – an abstraction that’s exponentially more difficult to ascertain than the more useful measures it’s meant to amalgamate. To make meaning of “influence,” I have to know more than a simple number – I have to be able to know something about you – quite a bit, actually.

Here’s something about me: my Klout is 39 out of 100. My Tweetlevel is 60 out of 100. My Twitter Grade is 100 out of 100.

What do you know about me, now?

What are these numbers proxies for?

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About the Author

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.