Social media white paper: defining influence


As requested, I have republished the white paper into separate blog posts so that each section can be commented on. This post focuses on the fourth section – defining influence. You can still download the full paper by clicking the link: Distributed influence: quantifying the impact of social media (PDF).

Links to all sections:

  1. introduction
  2. why is it important to measure online influence?
  3. social media index
  4. defining influence
  5. is influence what we should measure?
  6. should marketers target influencers or the easily influenced?
  7. what can we be selling that is better to buy than impressions?
  8. what are the origins of influence?
  9. the move to micro communications
  10. be cautious 
  11. a formula to understand influence
  12. what makes this actionable?
  13. conclusion


Defining influence

in·flu·ence clip_image002 /
Pronunciation [in-floo-uhclip_image002[1]ns]
Pronunciation Key – Show IPA Pronunciation noun, verb, -enced, -enc·ing.


the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behaviour, opinions, etc., of others: He used family influence to get the contract.

One of the common words used at the roundtable was ‘influence’. However, a straw poll of participants revealed that it could be defined in multiple ways such as:

  • It is a noun and a verb; it is an action and an outcome
  • It is credibility – having someone pay attention to you
  • It is the shaping (and the process of) the opinions, actions and/or behaviours of others

It is personal and builds from the inside-out and the bottom-up, generally one person, or one personal network at a time.

Ultimately, it’s not a purely rational thing. Much of what ‘influences’ is driven by emotion with uncontrollable external forces like family and the opinions, behaviours and actions of many (the crowd).

Walter Carl, in an academic article written with Professor Steve Duck at the University of Iowa, contended that the basic function of all communication (and thus influence) is to “seek a sense of control of the environment and of the rightness of one’s view of it”. By “control of the environment” they were referring to how people order, or interpretively make sense of, their world.

Walter explained that “the fact that people also seek to confirm their rightness of how they order/make sense of their world brings communication into contact with community (we define community as our network of personal and social relationships). In this context, to interact within a community of relationships is to engage in interpersonal influence. We are continually seeking to confirm the validity of how we order the environment and, one powerful to confirm our own view of the world is to put our view in communication with others’ views, and to have an effect on both others’ views and our own.

With social media, people’s discourse leaves a digital trail, making it available as a way to infer how people order their environment. In confirming our own views through a process of communication we often make subtle adaptations to our views. Thus, conversations are everyday negotiations of this sense-making process and to the extent people shift the discourse, or engage in efforts to reaffirm a certain discourse, we can say influence has occurred. Maintaining or ending a conversations is also a way to engage in influence.”

Influence and attention are different. Influence is fiscal and long term whereas attention is monetary and short term – Peter Kim

Following the roundtable Max Kalehoff attempted to answer the question of defining influence. He surmised:

“With all the attention around influence, and many unanswered questions, what we need most is more practical testing, tied to specific marketing objectives and applications.

The marketer’s Holy Grail of influence is the ability to recognize patterns and optimize outcomes — whether for advertising, media-planning, public relations, word-of-mouth marketing, etc. Without question, influence often rides on nothing more than spontaneity. Spontaneity is an overwhelming force. Unpredictability is perhaps the greatest law of mother nature when it comes to influence. However, deeper understanding will lead to bets and actions with more favorable odds.”

In defining influence, Max also believed that it is important to emphasise the value of ‘the Network’. He stated that any single person is nothing without a network. The network defines influence perhaps more than any one person. In its most basis form, someone may have an incredible idea but unless people hear about it, then its value is diminished.

One Response to “Social media white paper: defining influence”

  1. That’s a very insightful closing on that subject. Notwithstanding influence has dimensions and platforms of meaning. From a psychological perspective influence is either created by rational appeal or by the manipulation of psychological heuristics. But very true for the closing – does a falling tree make a noise if nobody can hear it?

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