Measuring influence is the new obsession in the social media world—adding another layer of anxiety to the dark cloud of existential dread that is marketing ROI.

Social media present us as individuals seeking status within a community, which is something that humans have been working at since our days as monkeys. Indeed, science tells us that monkeys would rather look at pictures of high-ranking members of their troop than eat. The only difference between us and the monkeys is that we usually remember to eat while we watch the Oscars or check our Twitter follower counts.

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Influence is the ability to affect others in their thinking or actions. But we need validation that it is happening. Since social media leave digital footprints, companies create complex algorithms to come up with simple answers to measuring social media influence. These fall into two categories:

  • The number generators. These tools assign a number to influence based on factors such as popularity, number of connections, and share of conversation. The best of these is still Technorati, because blogs are, in and of themselves, the most influential channel within social media. Face it, unless you can come up with enough to say to sustain a blog, it’s difficult to become influential. Others include Klout and Twitter Grader, which focus on the social networks. Another category of tools “gameify” influence by giving us fake shiny objects as rewards for engaging others. These include Foursquare and Empire Avenue. But all these numbers have little use beyond the ego stroke.
  • The monitors. These include the proprietary tools that look across all the online channels to determine how brands are being talked about. These social media monitoring tools have more use for marketers, but they require significant human intervention and can easily become very expensive versions of the number generators if not used with a goal in mind.

How to measure social media influence in a marketing context
Influence is usually presented in the context of figuring out who is engaging us and who we should be engaging with. But I think as marketers, we need to think bigger. I’d like to suggest that we look at influence as part of an integrated marketing strategy. In this context, influence has little to do with algorithms and more to do with something that marketers have been measuring for a long time: perception.

The two most important components of influence
I see successful marketers getting their companies to set two reference points to measure influence across all their marketing programs:

  • Who we are. Through surveys, both qualitative and quantitative, marketers ask their target audiences to tell them how they perceive the company. Classic versions of this are unaided awareness (“Name five IT services providers”) and aided awareness (“Have you heard of x company?”).
  • Who we want to be. This is where the strategy comes in. This reference point is in the future and requires careful definition. It requires all the key players in the company to decide how they want the company to influence the market in the future. For example, many ITSMA members are companies that began by selling B2B products but are now trying to become known as full-service solution companies. They have built or bought services divisions and created services offerings, but they cannot yet influence their target audiences to see them as anything other than product providers. Marketing’s job is to influence buyers to move from the existing perception to the new one—using all the available tools at its disposal.

Over time, we measure our influence by asking our target audience if they see our companies as we want them to be seen. Looked at this way, measuring influence becomes simpler and clearer.

What do you think?

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