Identifying Influencers Among Social Networks
Tracking The Elusive Influential
Tracking The Elusive Influential

Sorry, Malcolm. You’re still on the hot seat. I was initially planning to call this An Apology To Malcolm Gladwell: Your Book Isn’t Crap After All. I was inspired by news of amazing work in the field of social media analytics — news that suggested that real Influentials were finally captured “in the wild.”

That was before I dug deeper. The facts are that some cool data mining techniques are helping one company leverage their own “Influentials” (Gladwell calls them Mavens), but the work isn’t scalable to other industries. The only thing we can say for sure about these Influentials is they’re helping someone half a world away pick up more cell phone minutes. Here’s the research that got me so excited.

It’s from The Economist, and is called Mining Social Networks: Untangling the social web:

[Cell phone] companies can spot [Influentials], and work out all sorts of other things about their customers, by crunching vast quantities of calling data with sophisticated “network analysis” software.

Instead of looking at the call records of a single customer at a time, it looks at customers within the context of their social network. The ability to retain customers is particularly important in hyper-competitive markets, such as India.

Bharti Airtel, India’s biggest mobile operator, which handles over 3 billion calls a day, has greatly reduced customer defections by deploying the software, says Amrita Gangotra, the firm’s director for information technology.

When I first read this, I was ready to eat my words. I’d made prior claims that Gladwell’s The Tipping Point was wrong. Mind you, Gladwell is a wonderful writer. I particularly like his Blink, and Outliers. But Tipping Point hinges on research that implies that ideas — and brand recommendations — are spread like viruses; Find the hubs of those viral “outbreaks” and Poof! You vastly improve your sales success.

Here’s part of the post on my Digital Solid blog casting doubt on those assertions:

“Gladwell’s The Tipping Point talked about Mavens as hubs of influence. These folks are strong connections in a social ecosystem. As mavens on this subject or that, their opinion means much in persuading others. Gladwell based much of his book on the research by Duncan J. Watts, described in his book Six Degrees of Separation: The Science of a Connected Age.

“This research, which was itself predicated on Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment, suggested that strong ties do most of the work in spreading a message.

“The only catch: When the actual pathways were traced in Watts’ experiment, he found that only 5% of the work was actually done by these supposed hubs. He finally concluded that messages can be spread nearly as efficiently without hubs (i.e., Gladwell’s Mavens), and in fact, these myriad weak connections are the key to a social network’s real power to influence.”

Even the study’s originator, Duncan Watts, came to retract his strong ties conclusions.

The Ecstasy — And The Agony — of Hunting Influentials

Now comes a company, Bharti Airtel, that is actually profiting dearly by finding their own hubs of influence and catering to them differently than the rest of their customers!

My pulse raced. For a while.

The problem is that the the telecom isn’t profiting by any information about a brand (theirs or anyone else’s) passed through their phone connections. Instead, as best as I can tell, they’re measuring the number of calls and the time spent on the phone with each. My guess is that they’ve stumbled upon a different force at work — a force very different from the strong ties phenomenon.

I suspect they’ve benefited from the power of “social proximity.” A study described in the excellent book Consequential Strangers, conducted by Douglas McAdam and dubbed his Freedom Summer research, found that people are more likely to volunteer for a difficult and risky project if they have many friends with an emotional stake. For those following through with a project, versus a control group who did not, “Backing out meant disappointing, or risking the disapproval of, [on average twice as many more] people they knew.”

I haven’t been able to learn the details of how Bharti Airtel is using their network insights to make money, but my suspicion is they are selectively employing a “Friends and Family” type of loyalty program … Perhaps these folks automatically trigger discounts in much of their network, as long as they don’t defect to another mobile provider.

A Promising Trail Leads Nowhere

I love this industry. We’re in the middle of a social experiment that’s playing out right before our eyes, and it can be a thrilling ride. I’m just sorry that the early thrill of this recent stretch of trail turned into a dead end.

Now more than ever I’m prone to agree with the authors of Consequential Strangers, who wrote, “Marketing texts are filled with anecdotes about the importance of reaching a ‘network hub’ … As the case for Freedom Summer exemplifies, messages spread and movements grow out of everyday relationships.”

Photo credit: kurtz433 via Creative Commons
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About the Author

Jeff Larche
Jeff Larche has a deep background in database marketing and direct response. His is a consultant specializing in CRM and interactive marketing with Accenture. His own blog, which is also the name of his original consulting business, is Digital Solid. When he's not working at his day job, he's provided digital strategy support for a worthy not-for-profit, Rock the Green: mixing education about our environment with a day of great live music on Milwaukee's beautiful lakefront!
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  • Jeff,
    Very solid arguments and one I've been thinking about for a while. In fact, blogged on it for Jason a while back (http://www.socialmediaexplorer…/) and since expanded in a number of posts (see:…/)

    What's interesting is that Gladwell wrote his book in a PRE Social networks era when WOM and memes couldn't spread as cost-effectively. Plus, as Mark Earls points out in Herd, human relationships are inherently complex and can't be predicted (even though we'd like to use the idea of an “influencer” security blanket to help us figure it out).

    Well done and thanks!

    Am going to blog on your piece myself

    • Thanks, Jeremy. I looked over your post from August of last year (your last link, above) and I liked your examples of the strength of WOM — and especially liked your point that, “As Clay Shirky points out in Here Comes Everybody (and in 100 places since then) the big change is that now all of the people who surround the center of influence (call them “influencers” or “mavens” or whatever) can talk to each other.

      I'll watch for your follow-up post, and will keep you in the loop as I learn more about how this Indian telecom leveraged insights from their own network (one that, by definition, “talk to each other”).

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, and references to your own musings on the matter. It means to lot to me!

      • I like how you really participate in the conversation on the blog re: your post!

  • Jeff, I like the fact that you're taking on Malcolm, at least as it concerns The Tipping Point. This blog post fits particularly well with yesterday's, discussing the difference between the need to find media influencers in PR, vs. social media, where you have to build community as a whole, and just connecting with the top influencers isn't the goal, because as you say here, that in the long run doesn't help all that much. http://www.socialmediaexplorer…/

    Perhaps the moral is companies have to build communities, because no one person has that much influence in the long run.

    • mdeboard

      Patrick, I couldn't agree more. The notion of influencers is a red herring. Great product with a consistent, authentic presence in social media is how you “win,” not by sniping people with the desired follower:following ratio on Twitter.

    • Glad you enjoyed to post. I defense of Gladwell, he was working on a moving target — synthesizing research and quoting authorities is always dangerous. I do know why The Tipping Point become so popular, however. It was one of the first “popular” examinations of network theory. What's more, the concept of the network hub — that buried just under the surface where people who made all of the difference in spreading an idea — was just too intoxicating not to discuss.

  • mdeboard

    Wait, what happened to “influencer”? Has it been replaced with “influential”? Are we nouning adjectives? Please, please, please let's not go around trying to coin new buzzwords that basically already exist.

    Anyway, as to the meat of your article, I think Gladwell has rightly been relegated to the “pop psychology”/”pop social dynamics” pile vice bringing meaningful research to the table. Not to disparage a very intelligent and insightful man. Beyond that it was hard for me to glean anything out of your post. I had never heard of the case studies or research you cited, and the reason you cited them was to tell me they don't mean anything?

    The only reason I say so is because I suspect that I am just missing something. Have I missed the point?

    • I think Jeff's central point is that “influencers/influentials” is in fact a bogus metric to chase after.

      • mdeboard

        Are there still people who think it's legit? I thought they'd been sent to internment camps.

        • I must be out of the loop then, because it seems like every time I turn around some PR or social media “guru” is talking about the need to track down your influencers on social media.

          • You're right Patrick. I too still hear much talk about the “influential / influencer” as someone who can be identified and courted. And you're right, mdeboard, the point of the post was about this pursuit and nothing else — another thrilling possibility, another dead end. As the lead paragraph of the post stated, I was ready to retract what I said (and refute what others have said) because, lo, a huge telecom had identified their “influencers.”

            I hope the fact that you learned about this story from me first doesn't count against me. ;-) The fact is it's still an extremely important development. Although it WAS a dead end in the pursuit of true Influentials, the case is an early and quite impressive example of the power of network analytics.

            As an aside to you and the other readers of this, I would love to learn more about HOW Bharti Airtel is using their insights. Is it a loyalty program, an incentive directed at the “influencers'” connections within the network, or something else entirely?

            I have two friends who might be able to answer this, but hadn't been able to reach them “as this went to press.” I'll keep everyone posted if there is something we can derive from what I learn in our study of social networks.


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