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Don’t influence: connect and build trust
"Influencer Influenza" has crept over the marketing (and social media) world. People are obsessed with the notion of influence. But what if they're all going about it wrong?
Many continue an unhealthy obsession with influence. Young people obsess over becoming Instagram or TikTok famous, leading them to pursue a perceived life of luxury as an “influencer” over travel, fashion, food, you name it (blissfully unaware it might actually make them miserable). Brands seem to roll out the red carpet for them and cater to their every whim. And while this might help a brand’s Spring sale or launch a new line of meal delivery kits, it’s ignoring the entire benefit the web has to offer (in both directions).
The web isn’t really about influence. It never was. The mere fact so many use influence as jargon of choice to categorize their web startups which tout ability to discover, connect and engage with people based on “how important” they are based on either vanity or dashboard-filling metrics shows a lack of comprehension of the nature of digital communities.
I’ve been building communities online a long time now avoiding the influencer circus: ask me how important seeking out specific “influencers” was when building niche-specific B2B business blogs to 5-figure subscribers, creating the world’s first QSR Facebook community to reach 1M fans years ago from the ground up and launching word of mouth campaigns that spread organically and got the whole tech sector talking. Not…at…all (see this fun program one of my old teams put into place for a coffee brand, no groveling to influencers required, or even $ changing hands).
Rather, I helped those brands connect and build trust with their audiences. And we never tried to use our force or power to manipulate others, as how influence is defined. The notion of influence should probably be thrown out with things like “brand ambassadors” (cringe, right? normal people don’t talk like that, we’re not in an episode of Star Trek, so why should our industry: goal of which is to be clear, direct and genuine with audiences …and yes, unpretentious).
Influence, trust & authority: let’s clarify what they all really mean
We need some definitions if we’re going to move forward and talk semantics, which is worthwhile as various words that seem at first glance synonymous are thrown around together frequently without much thought (I have mistakenly done this in the past, we all have, which is why think important to draw delineations between them). This exercise hopefully will clarify our thinking on what it even means to persuade others to join us in collaboration and connection, and to what end. Specific thinking will result in better strategies. Disclaimer: these are my interpretations, yours may vary:
Influence is the power of someone to be a compelling force on the actions of others. Alexis Ohanianis is a highly influential person in getting us to try out new web services because he gets so jazzed about them we just have to try them out. His personality and enthusiasm is infectious. We can’t help but feel similarly (def a reason he’s so universally loved). Also note: influence by itself does not have to be negative, it is the application of it which determines the light it is viewed in. Alexis is in the rare part of the Venn diagram where he does have influence, trust and authority by the way, I just put him in the influence example because he’s just so good at it, naturally. People like shock jocks or opinion commentators on CNN or FOX are the variety that have influence but no trust or authority. Likely not as fun to be around as Alexis, of course.
Trust is reliance on the integrity in someone (essentially confidence). If you stop and think about it, we trust the people we follow online a great deal. Consider something as simple as all the shortened URLs you click each day, we trust our networks won’t send us a spam link, or worse. Of course, trust goes much deeper and the degree of which is built on over time. We trust our tax attorney isn’t going to get us audited. We trust the airline we get on the plane is in working order and the pilots are rested and professional. Trust online is not inherently different than offline. It helps serve as a shortcut for hearing perspectives, analysis and ideas. It’s easier to lose than it is to gain. People trusting us and our brand is for sure the end goal of participating socially online …those who have it are adults, who you want to spend time with, those who don’t are generally grifters you should avoid at all costs. Many grifters are influential, none are actually trusted for anything important by thinking individuals, and if they are it won’t be for long.
Authority is power or right delegated, given or in the case of the web potentially earned. Lawrence Lessig, a law professor who has written several books and works hard as an advocate of free culture online is an authority on copyright (amongst other things). I’m also a personal fan, as he’s one of the few people on Earth who authored a book on copyright law interesting enough I finished it in one sitting (Free Culture, it’s phenomenal).
With these definitions in mind…
My view of the three is that influence and authority are not necessarily personal, while trust is more abstract and difficult to measure because it is personal.
We have trust with people in social and sites we read because we form personal relationships with the brand or more frequently now the people behind the content. It is something that has been leeched from traditional media, and illustrates the shift in influence – from brands to people. Generic, faceless and mass 1-way broadcast communication is a fading relic in the minds of the future generation. It’s a dated model. I open Bloomberg specifically to read Joe Weisenthal or Matt Levine. As we have witnessed the birth of the long tail of content producers who have forever changed the dynamics of publishing, concurrently a new breed of media brands is emerging. Many of those brands are tied directly to incredibly passionate and intellectual people who understand the fundamental shift in communications. If Joe or Matt left they could take their readers with them and we wouldn’t miss a thing. Different logos on the page - so what? We trust them.
I have stated repeatedly in the past that attention + trust = influence. I’d also add attention + trust = authority. Trust is the shortcut to both of these. In other words: people/blogs/sites/Twitter users with the very highest level of trust may not necessarily show up in the influencer lists. Note we did not mention the word ‘popularity’ once in that paragraph. Prev gen marketers obsess over big, seemingly impressive numbers to make dashboards look pretty. But what if those exuberant spends on celeb endorsements are no better than torching large sums on broadcast, spray & pray TV that gets ignored by viewers multi-tasking also watching TikTok. What if you spend a whole lot less and take a more modern, surgical approach. It’s impossible to boil the internet ocean. It’s very doable to work with precision on a subset of people who actually matter for your category. Determine your universe and work within it, it’s impossible to be all things to all people: it’s not just bad comms, it’s simply not practical.
I’m not entirely convinced trust is measurable via automation with the tools we currently have – and while you could take several numbers, metrics or methods in tandem, it is difficult to gauge something so personal and near always misses the less followed users (we care about them potentially more than highly followed users, there is more than a vanity metric required to ascertain this). We just don’t have efficient mechanisms to identify them (although new tools such as Sparktoro are changing this). And when we get better tools, they will still by definition never be perfect. This does not mean we can’t do great work building trust, it means we'll need to get creative with tactics like how we build lists or research social networks we don’t have a solid grasp on. But these are tactics and will get solved, even if not 100% efficient today - that’s totally OK.
A potential bridge to trust without interacting with someone or something directly is either a preceding reputation or word of mouth from someone else that is trusted. But whether trust is actually bestowed from this is potentially questionable.
Further, my friend and grizzled digital marketing executive Mich Joel makes a strong argument that trust is non-transferable:
The idea of being paid to post is a fascinating and recurring topic (shall I trot out the dead horse now?), and one that needs to be removed from these specific incidents and looked at with a more macro perspective. The reality is that there are many great folk out there who are seen as leaders. People want to connect to them and, more importantly, some companies see them as an opportunity to connect their brand to that community, or to build credibility and create awareness for their brands, products and services. Also, because there are no clear advertising and sponsorship models in many of these newer social channels (beyond buying banners), we're seeing a ton of experiments to figure out "what works." It's very interesting and somewhat confusing - but that's the amazing part of being in the Marketing, Advertising and Communications business right now.
We expect those who post - and are paid to do so - to be transparent. Transparency is table stakes. We expect people to disclose what is an advertisement, what is sponsorship and what - if any - affiliations are had with other things that are mentioned within these social environments. But, there is something more profound going on here. When a company pays someone to post, they are hoping that the trust people have for that person will be transferred to them. No chance. Trust is non-transferable. We have companies who have little-to-no social community credibility riding the coat-tails of influencers who have spent a long while building up their community and, if there was no prize at the end of the rainbow (meaning the community also gets a chance to "win" something - not just the influencer), it would probably leave everybody feeling a little icky. The only way for that not happen is when the company that is paying to post has equal or more trust within the community.
The best advice a Digital Marketer can give a client who is asking them if they would accept money to post about them, etc... would be to help them understand that a brand can't buy trust, but they can - over time - build community and earn reputation. And, by going through with a program of this nature, it's also not very social media at all - it's just advertising (whether a Blogger yaps about it or they run a banner ad on their site).
Influence is the antithesis of community
Web community building is hard work. Anyone who says the opposite hasn’t actually built one from the ground up or is lying to you. And if you do have a thriving community, well you know the work that went into creating it. So would you really risk losing perhaps of your biggest competitive advantage and throw away years of hard work by attempting to covertly influence them?
If your efforts are based purely on trying to influence others or simply court “influential” users you are building your community on a house of cards. It’s not real. It’s full of takers not contributors or people you can trust. Eventually it is going to fall down because any community, even one that’s not top tier, will see through your efforts. It’s always on display and people will always see through this. You’ll be called out and made into an ongoing meme/joke, making it nearly impossible to ever be a real part of the community again. First impressions count, and we’re so busy on the web/there’s so much going on it’s highly likely you won’t get a second chance.
We’d like to make the case, on the web, it’s not influence – it’s trust
I used to read Steve Pavlina’s blog frequently years ago. I’ve also read his book. I saw him Tweet about a behavioral sciences book that sounded fascinating. Immediately I added it to my Amazon wish-list, and it was easily one of the best books I’d read that year (if you’re curious, this is the book: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality). It’s not influence that I decided to purchase it, it’s trust. I trust Steve isn’t going to BS a Tweet about a book being compelling (he didn’t even include a link). Because it hurts his reputation to do so, and trust is not easily repaired. Losing a member of your community who trusts you is extremely detrimental, you might never get them back.
Similarly, I ordered a copy of Morgan Housel’s fantastic book “The Psychology of Money” site unseen as soon as it was available for pre-order. This is because I’ve been a loyal reader to his blog for many years and already knew the quality to be expected in a proper full book. It goes further than this with Morgan, however - as he’s taken the time to become a personal friend of mine through Twitter where we’ve engaged on many topics, frequently trade DMs and shared each other’s thinking with our readers (as we both already have mutual respect and understanding of the value presented). So, not only did I read Morgan’s book (which was phenomenal, do get a copy if you haven’t) I’ve likely sold >100 copies to friends, relatives and social followers. I was doing this even before reading the book, which sounds crazy (I never do things like that) but I have so much trust in Morgan I knew before reading it I would want to recommend it. Yes, this level of trust is possible, and the benefits frequently can scale exponentially, not simply linearly (Morgan has just 330K Twitter followers but sold >1M copies of his book, for sure a large number of sales occurring on fintwit, of which Morgan is one of the most trusted community members).
Steve and Morgan are both popular, sure, but the above examples of hearing a comment or seeing a simple update and taking an action to buy and then endorse a book have nothing to do with their popularity. I take similar actions from those who are basically unknown except to a small group of people all the time. And similarly, it isn’t due so much to a direct prompt, but rather an emotional response from the person that naturally emerged combined with the fact they are trusted on a subject. That’s qualitative and not really measurable through a score because it is not so simple to know the nature of human connection.
It’s actually not even useful. If they want to connect with you, your company, and your category they are important, you don’t need a score to tell you that. These are the types of authors I read the majority of the time these days, with ivory tower/gilded writers getting less and less of my attention. Their credentialism matters far less than intimately knowing the human behind the work. As a musician I feel similarly about that craft as well. I acknowledge I might be weird on that one, but I don’t think it’s untrue in a world where the most connected, important, trustworthy people are all now frequently writers or vloggers. They want to engage with peers who respond in kind. Read/write society, not just read.
Let’s go through some additional perspective on how you might view influencer relations in a more productive light:
The connotations of influence are wrong
Influence has connotations of exerting force over others. There is nothing “social” about influence, and in fact groups will rally against such motives. If you wake up everyday and start your social media marketing by thinking about how you plan to manipulate your followers or YouTube subscribers you’re trying to take but not give. And it is unlikely this approach will ever lead to increasing returns: great digital marketing isn’t about a big launch you desperately rally your sector to livetweet the event or inconsistent participation to hit quarter numbers. It is a gradual process, which with continued focus over time will provide increasing returns. In other words: all of your previous efforts should help future efforts be even more successful. Trust compounds. It gets easier. But not if you take shortcuts.
Forget finding specific influentials, find real people and connect
Those who are the most influential usually are willing to help your brand the least. They’re generally egotistical and full of themselves. Don’t ignore those who are actively seeking to connect with you in favor of those who seem to have greater sway. It’s backwards to do this anyway. Because to some extent, the most influential people want to promote things that already are popular and have social proofing behind them. By building a close, interested community of those with something to prove who don’t yet (or hopefully ever) have a chip on their shoulder, you create an environment the right, genuinely cool folk will come to you.
Influence at scale could end with Oprah, Colbert, etc
Oprah was influential, and exerted her influence very directly. But I don’t trust Oprah. I’ve never spoken with her. I haven’t been exposed to her raw, unfiltered and unscripted feed of thoughts. Do you really trust those with the level of influence as Oprah?
For me, the difference between Oprah and Steve mentioned earlier is trust. But it actually goes deeper than that. It’s the difference between direct, conscious influence and merely sharing ideas due to passion and not anticipating an action would be taken. Oprah knows an action will be taken. Whatever is next in her book club is going to sell. It’s a given. And while it is conscious and while influential there is no way for us to seriously trust it. It’s not that Oprah is disingenuous, we just can’t possibly connect with someone at that sort of scale. Steve’s scale is more workable, and the internet makes it efficient for him to connect with many readers daily and put in the work to determine they’re the right readers.
There won’t be more like Oprah, or very, very few. She was one of the peak personas of a fading mass media society, but in our fragmented media world the notion of Oprah is quaint. Everyone isn’t praying to the same media deity any longer, people are organizing themselves around each other. We have to change our notion of influence because it now happens at the micro level and not the macro level.
This goes even deeper now: the zeitgeist of modernity increasingly pushing back against celebrities, politicians, actors and other previously regarded individuals for acting poorly. The internet has pulled back the cloth on many, others are being held accountable for being poor stewards of our institutions: political, media, name it. The cracks are fading in the world of mega-celebrities, with micro celebrities picking up the slack (I actually think this is a new and different kind of bubble that will burn out, an example being TikTok influencers… we can get into why this is in a separate post if anyone really cares, but I think they are on the clock as well).
Research backs this up:
And, of course, the most damning point on all of these attempts to declare certain individuals as “influencers” is the research — already a few years old — that suggests the people who are declared as “influentials” may not really have that much influence. That is, people are most often influenced by people who they really know personally, rather than someone who is “famous” in some form or another. Now I do wonder if that’s changing over time, and many people point out that Twitter and Facebook and the like often do make it feel like you get to “know” other people who you might not really know in real life, but it seems like in this rush to “grade” who is influential and who is not, we may have missed out on the fact that influence doesn’t work like that…
Bonus: perhaps helpful to new readers, if you aren’t Oprah we previously jotted down ideas on monetizing your personal digital monetization strategy if you sit on the other side of the table as marketers, who are as you’ve gathered by now actively trying to court you.
Trust, influence and authority metrics are soft/fluffy: directional at best, frequently misleading
Trust is a gray area to measure using quantitative metrics. Measuring an idea as subjective and nuanced as trust is difficult because you can never escape the simple fact that trust is relative. Someone may have a personal blog or substack with only 200 readers, but those 200 readers all soak in every word and trust the author deeply, taking any calls to action suggested and studying each sentence carefully. That person may be more trusted by their small, but loyal following than far more popular bloggers with greater numbers. Those 200 people might be the rainmakers of a sector and essentially all you need to connect with to have your ideas make waves with those who matter. In some niches it really can be almost as simple as that.
Raw numbers are irrelevant here, you’re not CNN or Coke, you’re far more focused, strategic and specific than that: what matters to you is if a network is activated, connected and determined – all indications of strong trust. You and your brand becoming a trusted part of it is of course the difficult, valuable and necessary step.
Anyway, I hope we’re all on board with the fact that popularity is not trust. This of course begs the question, is it possible to put trust into an objective measurement?
The web loves to measure popularity and influence, and does so via several quantitative (and qualitative) methods and tools, including the now defunct Klout, but certainly within many social media marketing suites are shoehorned in seemingly authoritative numbers, typically calculated based on easy metrics to scrape such as follower count (we’re all rolling our eyes).
What these numbers measure is (potentially) popularity (lots of this can be gamed) and arguably authority, but not trust.
There was previously a heated discussion around Google PageRank being the ‘definitive’ metric of measuring trust online (you might be too young to remember). Which I found quite bullocks. In fact, if you weren’t there and are curious about the debate, read this discussion on it from marketer/SEO OG Vanessa Fox. Note if you scan the page the word “trust” is not used a single time. She’s well aware influence is not trust, however what she does mention is authority, which is what PageRank does measure. That conversation was from several years ago, and I only bring it up as people have been confused or simply don’t spend the time to properly consider these terms and their precise meaning. But we must get categorizations correct in order to create effective strategies.
So what should we measure?
If you’re building a community, you should take the time to know who your community is made up of and not rely on a tool to try and spit out a metric about a person. Be data driven, absolutely, but focus on the critical few metrics and get qualitative feedback where needed, don’t try and fit everything into quantitative.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French writer
You don’t need to obsess over every metric and immediately scramble every time a new one is invented, such as an influencer score or new social media measurement methodology dreamed up by overpaid big consultancy midtwits.
In fact, my friend Avinash makes a compelling case for focusing on not more, but the critical few metrics.
Almost all of us have too many things we measure and too many things that distract us, taking away our precious time or attention.
If your business was on the line, how would you know things are going well or badly? Cutting through all the clutter of data to determine what metrics are your critical few.
You probably have at most three critical few metrics that define your existence. Do you know what they are? If you have 12 then you have too many.
While having more KPIs is ok to have as a gauge, find your critical metrics and focus on improving them as priority. You can also run surveys of your community, something I used to do while at Google to understand our analytics users and how we could best serve their needs. Be sure for such qualitative work to be consistent with frequency (quarterly, biannually) along with questions asked so you are able to trend the results and show improvements or areas that need improvement over time.
I am still struggling to find a case where something like an influence score could be considered part of your critical quantitative metrics. Or, where trying to kill yourself building the perfect measurement process or dashboard for your trust-building efforts is even required. There are so many more important, useful, actionable data points to trend. Trust lifts nearly all of them, as the web, word of mouth, linking and reputation are all human-powered.
The measurement aspect of influence, trust and authority are actually somewhat baked into your existing analytics tools. If you don’t get how, I suggest taking the free, open analytics MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) my former team at Google built, and pay specific attention to attribution (I also did an interview on this topic here last year). Nearly all the social/platform specific metrics are simpler they’re just directional KPIs (so getting better or worse, you might care, you might not, we’d need to know a lot more about your goals …measurement planning fixes this).
With broadcast scale dying, connecting & trust building requires a new kind of work - scalable intimacy
To give a personal example, I put a lot of time into connections with friends like John Boitnott, Louis Gray or Eric Friedman. If they ever asked me for something, I’d be willing to do it. They’ve gone beyond people I’ve merely connected with due to a shared interest and crossed over into being friends I very much trust.
Your community building should not be much different from that, and I know that’s hard to grasp but when done right it is very personal. Build connections and trust with those that matter. And the funny thing is, by focusing on fewer but higher quality connections you position yourself far better for growth than constantly trying to pay over-tapped influencers to give you a flirting glimpse in front of their audience (and pray their posts even get featured by algos). This way, you make genuine connections that go beyond chasing shiny objects that don’t actually help. These few, committed, close connections will work to help you scale intimacy if treated as stakeholders in your community and nurtured appropriately (with content, connections, collaborations, memes, this is your chance to get creative and try things out that will surprise and delight).
Quick wrap: this isn’t easy, but it’s an almost unfair advantage if you commit, because so few do
Influencers go wide large, treating the internet like a broadcast medium. Trying to shoehorn the old world into the new and ignoring all the potential magic at our fingertips to do greater things. Trust is deep, intimate, exponentially more valuable. And that’s exactly why you should be brave enough to build that.
Yes, this is different than typical campaign-thinking marketing. Campaign thinking is from an era it was expensive to share information with your customers. It used to make sense to be perfect because you were always in a position you had to rent the channels of others. And if you’re still in that mindset you’re thinking small. It is more scalable and provides far greater returns to become media yourself. And that’s exactly why you should try it.
Bonus: reader question
Related to this post, my friend Katie Harris, director of qualitative research at Zebra Research asked me a simple question about online influence: How do you choose who to listen to/not listen to?
I responded with this simple sentence: I don’t care about someone’s perceived influence or popularity, that is insufficient, I listen to those who have earned my trust.
Do you feel the same?
One final note: there *are* cases paid influencer tactics make sense, but for the types of companies most of us work for, there are more creative ways to accomplish this than throwing cash at the latest trending names. Think through what makes sense for your brand and strategy. And I am also not completely denigrating influencers in the classical sense online, certainly for many B2C brands they can provide returns. But my bias has always been to take a different approach and use the web what it’s best at, building intimate connections and long term trust.
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