Influence and Popularity in Social Media

When I started writing this blog I sought out the experts. I looked for various posts on how to write a blog, how to make my posts interesting to my readers (all three of them) and how to increase traffic. I searched Technorati for marketing related blogs and topics, wrote comments across the web and tweaked my blog design. At some point I happened across Mack Collier’s list of the Top 25 Marketing Blogs and my jaw dropped. I could not understand how someone could possibly build such high Technorati authority rankings – it seemed a world away from where I was in my thinking.

This list became my essential reading list. I used each of those blogs to learn, and their authors generously engaged me in their discussion of topics. But as the number of blogs within the marketing or social media category has exploded, these lists have begun to be used as an indicator of not just popularity but influence. But measuring influence is quite difficult … after all, not all of our interactions are online. How do we measure the off-web commentaries and discussions that occur in agencies around the world? Or worse, how do we determine how far and wide our thinking (words and images) reaches beyond the ever expanding edges of the web? (For example, I am sure I have seen David Armano’s influence ripples in presentations given by people who have never even visited a blog!)

There is a very real difference between blogs that I would consider popular and those that I would consider influential. As Shel Israel points out, there is a significant difference:

Suppose I were a political blogger and I had an audience of just three followers. Those followers were very engaged because they read everything I posted. They commented often. They took what I said and quoted me to other people in other conversations. But there were only three of them. Therefore I would be ranked lower than chopped liver in all the ranking systems. The catch is that those three readers were the President of the US, and the heads of China and Russia.

Influence, in this example, requires an intimate understanding of your readership – after all, we don’t know WHO reads unless they admit it by commenting or sending an email. In thinking through the concept of influence, and what I have been calling the Democracy of Action, it seems to me that influence is built on twin axes of popularity and reputation (I am borrowing from Gartner’s magic quadrants slightly here). Where your blog’s popularity and reputation are both high, you have “social influence” – and the capacity to create contagion and instigate action on a large scale. However, where you have a popular blog but lower levels of reputation, your blog is likely to fall into the “hype” category. 

Perhaps controversially, I am thinking that these distinctions refer directly to Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties”. Social influence and its impact on action is determined by a large number of “weak ties”. So those blogs which are built around an identity which is well-known to its audience (strong ties) is less likely to carry social influence. These quadrants would appear as shown below.


The “niche influence” and “awareness” categories I fairly self-explanatory. Lower levels of popularity but high levels of reputation indicate influence within niche audiences; while lower levels of both reputation and popularity indicate awareness is low and interaction is emergent. 

How does this thinking play with your own understanding? Am I missing something? Is this too simple? Would love to know your thoughts!

UPDATE: Mike Arauz expands on his comments with a whole post, adding a z-axis to the diagram. And Dina Mehta weighs in, transforming the discussion to encompass the changing behaviours of both consumers and brands.

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10 thoughts on “Influence and Popularity in Social Media

  1. I see from your sidebar that you list how many subscribers and readers you command.
    Consider that people follow your tweets (as I do) doesn’t mean everyone will come and/or be inspired to comment (as I am). Moreover, just because someone is following you on Twitter or subscribed to your RSS feed doesn’t even mean they’ll see your content. They may see a title or may see your name scroll through their screen, but ultimately, what is the worth of a number?
    The key, to me, anyway, is the value of the name, not the number. It is for this reason I don’t include sidebar statistics of my blog’s subscribers or Twitter followers. I know those numbers but I’m not religious about it; I’ll look at my Feedburner statistics 2-3 times a month, if that.
    Which goes back to your overall premise about hype and awareness and networks. Maybe I’m simplifying things, but why does it matter if you command so many readers?
    After all, I’m posting my first comment on your blog having nothing to do with any of the above four boxes; I come to you via a whim.

  2. That looks about right. I see the popularity axis being measured in objective absolute terms (follower volume), whereas the reputation axis being measured in relative subjective terms (qualitative value).
    Is there perhaps a z-axis too?

  3. I propose the z-axis would be “social impact” as a function of time. This could explain how a channel or media piece is more meaningful/influential at defined time points than others.

  4. Gavin, looks like a pretty solid map to me. I like Mario’s idea of creating a z-axis, and I would agree that it should reflect in some way the action that your work inspires.
    It’s always a fascinating topic. Who is An Influencer? And how many other people do they influence. But it usually boils down to trying to figure out how to or who can actually convince people to do things.
    So, you’re breaking it down…reach is a component of influence, reputation is a component of influence, and surely a person’s (or brand’s) ability to instigate action is a component of influence. Right?

  5. Thanks for the interesting reflection Gavin! It appears to me as if the blog’s landscape is an ever shifting one, back and forth across these sphere’s.
    You raised many of the questions that we should be thinking about as we move our blogs into these rejuvenated pools of thought.
    It’s also true that blogging itself, and interactions from the Internet, have literally rewired human brains of those who use these format extensively. All makes for some interesting observations as the brain cells settle:-)
    I need to think more about this one:-)

  6. Hi Gavin, great post, as usual. But I’m not sure about the 2×2 as it doesn’t really capture the dynamic complexity of how networks, relationships and influence operate. For example where would you place Shel Israel (in the given example) in this matrix? Looks like it might be in the “Niche influence” box – surely not? I suppose it depends on the definition of ‘niche’ and ‘social’ influence as the former can sometimes yield more profound results than the latter.
    I think you’re closer to the mark with Granovetter’s work or any form of social network analysis which illustrates popularity and potential influence through the density of interconnected cluster diagrams.
    Finally I think that critical to both 2×2 or network cluster analyses must be ‘purpose’. I think that reason or need largely drives the type of network that is formed and the strategies that are employed to build it.

  7. Gavin,
    I like simple. Simple is usually the best way to get others to understand. For me, I check my readers every day, and I pay special attention to their comments, e-mails and face-to-face interactions. They are what matter most to me and I believe a writer’s job is first and foremost to serve readers wants and needs.

  8. Hey – a four quandrant matrix like the ones we find in countless MBA courses. No seriously, influence and popularity are serious subjects for social media. Each networks has its own super inflentials. For example, Myspace has Tila Tequila. Robert Scoble could arguably be the most influential on the Twitter network. But then Robert is also influential on his own blog and on FastCompany. There are a few influentials who transcend networks that are worth studying.

  9. Marigo … I think Granovetter’s analysis can help us determine whether a site/blog is social or niche. It comes down to whether there is a 1:1 relationship or whether it is mediated by technology. For example, while I “know of” Shel Israel, I would not claim to “know” him. It is a social connection – a weak link. And his work certainly has influenced me … and his recommendation would entice me to investigate something (ie move to action).
    Interestingly when I think more on it, a single blog can simultaneously belong to any or all of the quadrants – after all, it depends on the audience, not on the content/focus. Just because I write about marketing and branding does not preclude a religion-focused audience from engaging with my writing/thoughts. Hmmm … that’s what happens when you try to simplify the complex 😉 Complex wins 🙁

  10. ….and 4 years later we’re still trying to quantify this!!
    Good post Gavin – to me it underlines the importance of knowing your community as more than data points. It also means that the onus for translating those data points into actionable insight sits with us.

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