Influence. It’s a captivating word. It’s an alluring word.

We all want it, and we want to know others who have it.

In high school, if you could get the “cool kids” to the party, the rest would follow.

If the most famous and glamorous people in the world use it, like it, and talk about it, it must be great.


But is that influence? From our good friend, Webster, Influence is:

1. A power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort:
2. Power to sway or affect based on prestige, wealth, ability, or position


As part of a thought exercise, I asked myself two questions:

(1) Who are the most influential folks in history?

Names like Jesus, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Adolf Hitler, FDR, Mohandas Ghandi, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Steve Jobs come to mind.

Nelson MandelaMartin Luther King, Jr. Steve Jobs

(2) Who have been the most influential people in my life?

My wife, my parents, a former NBC Universal Executive, a business man turned global missionary, the most successful enterprise sales executive I know, a Navy Seal turned pastor and non-profit Executive Director, and select football and basketball coaches throughout my athletic career.

The irony is that many or most of the most influential people in my life literally have no or limited presence on Social Networks (yet). There are dozens of others who influence my thinking as circles cascade outwards, and as contexts become more detailed and narrowly defined, but these are the ones who have spoken into my life, and who have the most influence on my decisions. Their actions and influence on my behavior is for all intents and purposes, not measurable.


But I am also a social customer. I read reviews. I ask, comment, and interact in public social networks and forums, and these interactions and the things I learn and observe do influence my buying decisions.

WOMMA put together the following infographic about what fuels our collective purchasing decisions. These are the things that have marketers so excited and quite frankly, confused.

Word of Mouth Marketing


As the restricted and proprietary ivory towers of media, global communication, and information flow have given way to citizen journalists, we have witnessed the great democratization of media, celebrity status, and, in turn, the democratization of influence itself. Or have we? Has anything really changed?

In the end, business is all about leverage. It’s about maximizing the return on available time, talents, and resources. The social web, ubiquitous connectedness, and the ongoing digitization of everything finds marketers both forced and opportunistically looking to leverage the new influencers (their reach, their networks, and the trust that they’ve established in their tribe) for their respective interests.

Watch this short clip from a fascinating talk by Deb Roy and you’ll see a fantastic example of how an action by one can truly effect the actions of tens, or hundreds, or potentially thousands of others.

So, then, as marketers, the next obvious questions are:

How do we find the influencers?

How do we engage with them?

How do we entice them?

And, ultimately, how do we provide these influencers with a message that they can carry to their audience(s) that benefit our brand, our company, our products, and ultimately our interests?


Who do we reach out to?
This first question is where most people start. Who are the influencers in our marketplace? The answer to that question, in and of itself, may be tougher than it initially seems. The unaware may start with their offline network, and extend their research by finding those with the highest number of Twitter followers. But studies have shown that there is little correlation to numbers of Twitter followers, facebook fans, or similar social network as measures of real influence.

For more reading on this, check out On Twitter, Followers Don’t Equal Influence and Celebrities’ Twitter Followers Have Zero Influence

Some online services have begun to tackle this problem by attempting to measure influence in a more scientific way. By now, you may have undoubtedly heard of Klout, or PeerIndex, or Traackr, or several other upstart influence measurement tools.

  • Are these valid?
  • Should they be used? And if so, how?
  • Does it help me identify the influencers who can allow me the greatest amount of leverage for distributing my message, and more importantly, help make a measurable impact for my organization?


Klout, the most widely recognized service, recently stirred a sea of controversy when they changed their algorithm score. Perusing through the comments, it was apparent that some had so deeply embraced these influence scores, that they were literally upset that they might lose their jobs, their clients, and for a moment, I was concerned that many of them might even lose their lives.

While Klout’s messaging spun this as a “More Accurate, Transparent Klout Score”, I have to wonder. They’ve never been very transparent about the mechanics of what makes up the Klout score. While Klout started with Twitter, it has since expanded to Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, and a host of other social sharing sites. At first glance, it appears that facebook, in particular, has taken on a far more significant weighting in their recent shift.

When trying to understand the motivations behind actions, I often start with the looking at the money trail. It’s important to know that Klout is a for-profit corporation with venture capital funding. It’s also important to know that they are monetizing their service by providing social data to large consumer brands. Alignment with the world’s most popular and mainstream social network probably makes sense and may contain the most valuable unstructured data for what has emerged as Klout’s primary paying customers, the world’s largest consumer brands. To their credit. it seems that Klout has perhaps taken a big step towards alignment with their customers in providing relevance. Perhaps I’ll no longer be the ideal candidate for pre-screening and behind the scenes previews for new release movies and TV shows, which I’ve received numerous Klout Perk offers for, ignoring all of them.

Watch the editorial video below from the Wall St. Journalas it gives deeper insight into Klout and its effect on many participating in digital media today.


Is this really a measure of influence, and if so, in what context, for whom? Or is this simply a service that major brands can leverage to gain access to more targeted recipients of their ads?

How does this concept of influence measurement apply to the billions who choose to make significant changes in their communities, in their businesses, with their customers, and behind the walls of their organizations without doing so on public social networks? How will Klout or something like it really measure actions and communications that truly inspire change and affect thoughts, behaviors, and actions of others?

There is a long way to go. These fledgling measurement scores are valid experiments and I firmly believe the precursors to something more meaningful, more relevant, and more useful, but there is only so much they can measure today. Couple that with the extreme potential and propensity for inaccuracy and fraud, and the system’s reliability breaks down.

Ironically, Klout specifically has suffered quite the backlash on social channels. Recent alarms have sounded over privacy concerns and the inability to remove one’s self from Klout. (Though you can do that now.)

In closing, there are several challenges that the world of influence measurement must overcome before being truly valuable for organizations and brands. I’ll start with a few and let others weigh in.

(1) Klout (and other measurement tools) will act in their best interest. As long as their interests are aligned with profit, their is opportunity for corruption. Witness recent allegations against the major ratings agencies in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis for an example. (To be clear, I have no problem with Klout specifically, nor is this in any way any allegation against them)

(2) As evidenced by the video above, online personalities will act to game their score, something that has been proven to be easy to do. High “Influence” scores then have the potential to be allocated to those who have the most time on their hands to play an online game, then actually make any meaningful change or impact on the world.

(3) True influence is about changing behavior. It’s hard to measure anything truly meaningful today and correlate to something measurable (ie. a purchase, a referral or mention that led to multiple purchases)

(4) Measurement scores must be relevant to the motivations and priorities of the ones utilizing the scores.

(5) *** Perhaps the biggest one that will only be resolved with time and the eventual “digitization of everything”:

Only a small percentage of most of our actions happen in the digital world today. Though, this is changing rapidly , digital influence measurement systems can only evaluate a very small percentage of what’s happening in the real world.


I’m sure I’ve missed a ton so I’ll leave the rest to you.

What are some other challenges / gaps you see in today’s “influence measurement” scores? How would you improve them?

Or, maybe you can surprise me, what are some ways that you have used one of the emerging influence measurement systems to measurably impact the bottom line of your organization?

And if you still want more on the topic of influence, my friend Dr. Michael Wu has written quite a bit on the subject, especially as it pertains to social networks.


  1. says

    Very well rounded piece, Brian.

    Still formulating a longer response, but I wanted to ask a question about the first definition in point #3 directly above: Is true influence confined only to changing behaviours?

    I think the definition is more accurate if it is slightly broadened to include enrichment or improvement of behaviours. Certainly makes measurement even harder and more complex, but I’m not convinced that influence only means change.


    • Brian Vellmure says


      I look forward to your response. In caveman terms, I think enrichment and improvements are simply positive changes. I look forward to having your additional depth and color added to the thought stream.

  2. Dawn says

    In response: I belive influence has a majority to do with how you were raised and who you surround yourself with. In definition from Webster as you qoute; 1. A power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort:
    2. Power to sway or affect based on prestige, wealth, ability, or position

    Influence always has an effort or it is directly aimed at a particular dynamic of some sort. That being said, you can take the last election as a perfect example- The president tried and succeeded in influincing his dynamic- young people and minority voters- to his position with great effort to get elected- his ads, speechs and goals were aimed directly at those groups- without any of that, he would not have been elected. You can also look at marketing of toys, which conviently come on during childrens shows to have the child want or “need” that item- there is direct influence and effort in getting the child to get at the parent for that item. You have 3 kids now, so you probably have some type of idea about this- especially at Christmas time when the ads and commercials are flowing freely on tv, radio and in print.

    As for the second part of the definition- I believe that as we are raised, we are influenced by our parents (or whoever raises us)-that is their job, at least to give us a solid base to be free thinkers and have the ability to decide what we want or need, regardless of what society tells us we need. If we all followed the masses into believing that on person has the only right idea, then we wouold not have any advancements in any fields or and derivitive of any idea out there. This was very apparent in society when Bush started the war we are currently in- his position was to make everyone believe that this was the right thing to do- but regardless of what he said or his power, not everyone agreed and if we all remember, there were several protests and problems when it began.

    With all of that- I do believe there is some influence that affects each one of us, if even in a small way. whether or not that influence is to get us to purchase the product or idea or the influence disgusts us into revolting against the product or idea, depends on each individual and how we were raised to believe. Most parents influence their children to be kind of like them, but still have free will. Look at children who are raised one religion and when adults, change to another for whatever reason- whether is be because of something that happened to them, or a future spouse or whatever- that is the individuals independent decision- no one can force it- if they do it is no longer influencing the person, it is not a choice.

    I do agree with your comment/response to Kelly:
    “In caveman terms, I think enrichment and improvements are simply positive changes.”

    Thanks for the article- it brought up an excellent discussion in my office.

  3. says

    Great insight Brian. While I don’t personally put much “klout” in Klout, I’m keeping my eye on the service as things develop. In the meantime, your article provided me with what I think is an important (and probably overlooked) aspect of what’s really going on which is this: “… is [Klout] simply a service that major brands can leverage to gain access to more targeted recipients of their ads?”

    Something I think is worth thinking about.

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