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When you’re looking for social influencers in your niche to connect with and engage, where do you start? Most people make a beeline for the flashy, neon lights of the follower count. While that mayseem a logical place to start, it’s really a flawed metric.

First, anyone with a bit of internet know-how and disposable income can inflate their follower count quite easily, generally with followers who’ve got zero interest in what they’ve got to say. Then, there’s the matter of celebrity. Movie stars, athletes, artists, and other public figures often pile up followers simply by being themselves. Does that make them influential?

Maybe in a narrow sense. If your favorite musician hypes a new, unknown band on Twitter, you might be more likely to check that band out. That’s not the kind of influence we’re talking about, though. Joshua St. Aubin has a great post about this on his blog. In it, he compares the follower count of CMOs from popular companies like Google and Mashable to an almost random cross-section of famous people like Katy Perry and well-followed accounts you likely didn’t know existed. The CMOs fare pretty poorly in the comparison. However, that doesn’t mean you should turn to Katy Perry for marketing tips!

It’s All About Context

Ultimately, follower counts reveal more about popularity than they do about influence. Influencing thoughts, ideas, trends, and so on requires genuine, personal interaction. It’s tough to influence people only by telling them what to do. So if you want to find the real influencers, you’re going to have to dig a little deeper than follower counts.

You can start by looking at following counts. Not a perfect number, for many of the same reasons mentioned with follower counts, but it does shed some light on whether a person is willing to reciprocate. Profile pages also contain some clues. Does the profile invite people to engage in clear terms? Is it friendly? Admittedly, “friendliness” is a subjective measurement, but you know it when you see it.

Still, even the most inviting profile is of little use if the potential influencer doesn’t follow through on its contents. That’s why the best place to gauge influence is the person’s public interactions on the medium. When someone sends a public message, does it get a prompt, personal response? Can you quickly find regular, two-way interaction when you scroll through their feed?

Look for interactions that don’t begin and end with a sales pitch. Find accounts that offer true value to connections and speak on common ground. Influence is a two-way street, and you’ve got to give something to get something.

Most of the time you’ll be able to get a contextual read on influence pretty quickly, simply by paying close attention to how a person interacts. If you’re still unsure, scan the person’s feed, find a common interest and send them a message. The response, or lack of one, will be revealing.

Build Relationships, Not Follower Counts

Whether you’re trying to build influence, and via that enhance the customer experience, or looking for influential people to engage… focus on relationships. Common ground is always there, waiting to be found. There are no shortcuts in building meaningful relationships, and there’s no magic secret, either. All you’ve got to do is be human, be nice, and listen. Look for the same traits when you’re searching for influencers.

There’s no tidy metric to measure meaningful relationships, but you’ll start seeing results almost as soon as you commit to the process. In the end, your Return on Relationship, #RonR, will always trump the meager results that come with trying to win the popularity contest.

Originally posted Sep 30, 2014 on Inside CXM

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