Archive for the ‘community management’ Category

In community management, we often have to deal with so-called super-connectors and opinion leaders. These people stand out from the crowd, often have a lot of contacts or moderate groups and are considered key influencers in the community. Taking care of them and looking after their needs is usually an important part of a community manager’s work. However, I have come to wonder if these influencers really deserve all that attention.

Influencers are traditionally seen as people who have influence over other people’s opinions and decisions, particularly consumer decisions. That’s why they are considered important. Influencer marketing – in a nutshell – seeks to identify influencers and to use them in order to increase awareness of the product or service in the market. But when it comes to identifying these mystical imfluencers, things get blurry. Influencers were usually people with access to a lot of other people and an expert reputation, typically journalists, book authors, consultants and your odd elite professor. They exert influence because they have more or less exclusive access to a lot of people and because people trust them. Sounds reasonable so far. Since the rise of user generated content like blogs, social networks and twitter, people who run prestigious blogs and/or have huge online networks have been added to this classical concept of the influencer.

Two things constitute an influencer: being trusted and reaching lots of people.

Let’s have a look at the first factor, trust. If you want to influence someone’s decisions, you need either power over that person, or the person needs to have trust in you. The trust most influencers could rely on came from an expert status. This expert status is usually limited to one single area. I would trust a famous chef if she recommends me a certain restaurant or cookbook, but would I listen to her when she advises me on which laptop to buy? I don’t think so. Which might be a pity because maybe she is very interested in computers, owns the laptop erself and is very happy with it. But because my trust in her is limited to the field of her expertise, I ignore her advice about other topics such as laptops.

Unless… she is a friend of mine and I know she has been using that laptop herself. And this is where social networks and social media in general come into play. These technologies make it very easy to pick up information and advice from people I know – and because I know them I trust them, and unlike with the „expert trust“ this kind of „personal trust“ is not limited to one specific topic.

Now let’s take a look at the second factor on which the influencer’s influence rests: access to a lot of people. A normal person usually has a close relationship with about 4 or 5 other persons (family, friends) and weak relationships to up to 150 people (colleagues, neighbours, etc.). But the influencer commands a much much larger network with possibly thousands of people to which he or she is somehow loosely connected. So they can easily get the message out to a huge crowd of people. The idea follows the pyramid model, where influencers are at the top and the message trickles down from them to the consumers.

Some things have changed, though.

First, the perception of consumer’s trust towards media and experts has changed drastically over the past couple of years, mainly due to user generated content and social media. This can be seen in several studies which showed that trust in the media as well as experts has been declining steadily in recent years. Instead, consumers look more at what other consumers say and do, particularly if they have a connection with these other consumers. For example, people who download music do not care so much about the quality of the music they download, but whether other people have downloaded the music before.

In addition, a 2007 study by Ted Smith [pdf] on word-of-mouth marketing found that most members of the analysed communities were interested in 10 to 12 topics and that they serve as advisers on these topics to their network. According to the same study, the distribution of network sizes in communities typically resemble a bell curve with a normal distribution, meaning that there are few people with very small or very large networks and lots and lots of people with medium sized networks.

Because of the huge number of these „normal“ networks, there is far greater potential for influencing people than in the comparably tiny number of „key influencer networks“. The potential of these medium-sized networks becomes even more obvious when we take three more factors into account:

  • medium-sized networks have a much higher ratio of close ties to weak ties than the typical network of an influencer (5 close ties in a total network size of 100 versus 10 close ties in a network of 10k)
  • close ties typically exert the most influence on our decisions and behavior (our political opinions are mostly shaped by our family and close friends; and only after our opinion has been shaped we buy the newspaper which then supports our existing opinions)
  • people to which we feel a close connection may influence us on a wide range of topics, not just on one expert topic.

Social networks bring together the people with who we have a personal connection and make it easy for us to exchange information and advice with these people, i.e. influence them and be influenced. They create interconnections and publish the information and exchange and thus make them accessible to the vast number of medium-sized networks.

What’s the bottomline? Classical influencers’ most important assets, the trust which they had built up as experts and their reach to masses of people via publication technologies, have lost a lot of their uniqueness and appeal. Trust in media and all kinds of experts has crumbled, and thanks to the newsfeed everybody can easily share advice or important information with their network.

Summary: Are influencers not important any more?

Not quite. The larger potential for influencing decisions may nowadays lie in the medium-sized networks, but as a community manager, it is still important to pay attention to influencers within your community. With their huge networks, what they do and say will still be noticed by a huge number of other people, with potentially devastating results. Imagine that some influencers would repeatedly violate important rules that govern your community – this could cause confusion and distress for a lot of community members and lead to complaints as well as reduced member satisfaction. In the worst case scenario, other members might actually pick up on what they saw the influencers do and violate the rules themselves, leading to a vicious cycle that might well destroy the entire community! So you have to make sure that influencers are aware of being important role-models for other community members and that a larger responsibility stems from their huge networks.

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