Online influence measurement: you can’t “count” on the numbers

The Friendship Algorithm, as seen on “The Big Bang Theory”

It seems that more and more people are relying on numbers to determine online influence lately. They’re interested in Klout scores, numbers of followers, how often things are shared or retweeted, and don’t seem to be looking too far beyond that.

Since there is no definitive algorithm behind measuring online influence, and never will be, we need to do away with this trend in our way of thinking.

No matter how you analyze the numbers (followers, retweets, etc.), you simply can’t determine influence this way. Even if you’re a mathematical genius, there is no formula that can be built on any variation of these numbers to accurately determine influence.

Just because someone has a lot of followers on Twitter, or a high score on Klout, doesn’t mean they are influential.

Case in point

To use David Armano’s (@Armano) example from the Mesh 11 panel with Valeria Maltoni (@ConversationAge) and Mark Evans (@MarkEvans) titled “How do you (or can you) measure online influence”: Charlie Sheen has over 4 million followers on Twitter, yet has little influence over his following (“Sheen’s Cadres” aside), as far as affecting their actions.

If you are following Charlie on Twitter, it’s most likely because you, like most people in western society, can’t help but get a front row seat to watch as yet another celeb spirals out of control. Does he have influence over your actions though? Not likely… If he does, you may want to see a psychiatrist.

So, what exactly is influence anyway?

This seems obvious, but if it were then this blog post probably wouldn’t be needed. According to Merriam-Webster, influence is:

  1. to affect or alter by indirect or intangible means
  2. to have an effect on the condition or development of

For the purpose of our topic today, it simply means to affect someone else’s actions, by way of a tweet, Facebook update, or blog post (for a few examples).

Pete Cashmore VS. Charlie Sheen

Let’s take a look at two Twitter accounts with very different numbers.

For those who are unfamiliar, Pete Cashmore is the CEO and founder of Social Media site Mashable – one of the most read and shared social media content sites in the world, and the 3rd ranked blog on Technorati’s top 100 blogs list.

Compared to Charlie Sheen’s 4+ million followers, 19+ thousand seems miniscule. Yet Pete has a knack for driving action (aka influencing people) – here are just a couple of recent examples:

Pete mentions a game for the iPad – people check it out.

Pete tweets about the Syrian Revolt and not only does it get retweeted by a number of people, but Alyssa Milano gets on board to show her support too!

Pete is so well respected online that Entrepreneur Magazine turns to him for answers to questions like “who should you be following on Twitter?” Most importantly, people who read the list will follow Pete’s recommendations.

And then there’s Charlie:

This tweet received over 100 retweets, but only two replies… here they are:

Here’s how Pete and Charlie stack up on Klout:

While Charlie’s tweets do often get retweeted by A LOT of people, they don’t typically lead to any form of action. Seeing how he has over 4 million followers, he needs only a small percentage of his following to retweet his messages to appear influential to a tool that calculates influence based on the numbers.

According to Klout, Charlie is more influential than Pete – who do you think is more influential? Does Charlie drive action through his tweets?

How SHOULD we measure influence online?

By digging! I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it will take effort. You have to get in there and research the potential influencer thoroughly before you can really even begin to judge whether they’re influential or not. You have to look far beyond Klout score, or how many followers a person has – these numbers unfortunately aren’t directly indicative of influence. Are tools like Klout useful as a starting point in finding those who may be influential? Absolutely, but that’s a whole other discussion entirely.

When it comes to ranking, you can create a system and put people on a scale of say 1-10 yourself, but not without first digging to see the side of the story that numbers can’t tell on their own.

Here are some of the ways you can look beyond the obvious numbers:

  • What kind of content is the person creating and sharing (quality, focus/niche, credible and sourced, etc.)?
  • How does the content they create relate to what you are planning to achieve? The most effective blogs are often tailored to a very niche audience – is their blog attracting the group of people you want to reach?
  • What kind of engagement does their blog receive – comments? Discussions between readers through the comments?
  • Are people sharing the content through their own networks? (Through Google +1, Facebook “Likes”, Twitter, etc. – this can most often be seen by a counter next to its respective button)
  • Is their content ever picked up, or linked to by other bloggers or even major news outlets?
  • Perhaps most importantly, are they seen as credible? (A look at the tone of the comments and the kinds of comments the blog receives should give an indication of this. People won’t be afraid to speak their mind if they think the writer is full of it).

These are the kinds of things that will help determine just how influential someone really is, in my opinion at least.

How do you determine online influence? Do you have any other tips to add? What are your thoughts on tools like Klout and their importance in determining influence? Please share in the comments!