In their 1955 book, “Personal Influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communication,” Paul Lazarfeld and Elihu Katz defined influential individuals as:
“…individuals who will spread, confirm or negate the message of advertisers through their own social relationships by word-of-mouth or personal example.”
In 2007, Paul Gillin took interest in exactly the same concept, this time applying it to social media. His book is called “The New Influencers.” The biggest change in the past 55 years is the proliferation of behavioural information generated by consumers’ online activities. This data offers extensive insights about consumers and it can be used for new services offered by PR firms, such as Edelman, which developed its own tool (TweetLevel) to analyze influencers, or agencies, which use tools such as Radian6, SM2, Scoutlabs, etc.
What are these new services? Most firms identify influencers using one specific criterion: the popularity of the individual within their network. In other words, they assess the number of people who could potentially be influenced by the influencer. For example, an influencer may have a lot of followers on Twitter who actively interact with him or her.
The way I see it, this method is something like a pyramid sales model. The approach identifies the individuals who are at the head or centre of a pyramid that comprises a large number of people, with the hopes that this influential person passes down information, in a trickle-down effect, until it eventually reaches the least influential individuals within the network. This approach is very effective for short-term gains, but not particularly effective for engaging consumers over the medium and long terms.
A Boston University study published in January 2010 indicates that an influential person is not defined by the number of people in his or her network, but rather the type of people who are in their network. This leads me to conclude that the concept of an influential individual should be replaced by the notion of an influential community, which is comprised of individuals who will, in turn, effectively transmit information to other important networks. However, before this concept can be applied concretely to the services offered by PR firms or agencies, analytical tools must evolve so that we can identify which communities are particularly influential. It may take quite some time before commercial applications become available.
When will we start targeting influential communities instead of influential individuals?