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Exploring and Defining Influence: A New Study

Influence is bliss…

The socialization of media is as transformative as it is empowering. As individuals, we’re tweeting, updating, blogging, commenting, curating, liking and friending our way toward varying levels of stature within our social graphs. With every response and action that results from our engagement, we are slowly introduced to the laws of social physics: for every action there is a reaction – even if that reaction is silence. And, the extent of this resulting activity is measured by levels of influence and other factors such as the size and shape of nicheworks as well as attention aperture and time.

Defining Influence

The word influence as well as the individuals referred to as new influencers are elusive in terms of standard definition. Finding a common understanding and meaning is easier said than done. Influence itself is undergoing reexamination to better understand the diversity in perceived and actual social capital and the effects of conversations across first degree social graphs and across the social graphs of those connected across each degree (friend of friends and so on).

To help, I drafted a working definition to address influence and influencers as slightly modified from its longstanding definition in standard dictionaries.

Influence is the ability to cause desirable and measurable actions and outcomes.

As everyday people flirt with reach and impact, the question becomes, do they hold the same potential to cause effects similar to those of traditional influence and connectedness, for example celebrities, industry or political leaders, media properties and favorite brands? Or does social media represent the equalization of influence? One thing is already clear, influence is not popularity and popularity is not influence. According to research, size does not matter.

The Influencer Poll

Defining influence is just the beginning. Understanding perception and expectations around influence and influencers helps us identify where we need to focus time on education and innovation.  This month, I partnered with Vocus to run a formal study on influence. As a result, 700 business leaders, entrepreneurs, and marketing professionals contributed to the report, which is available now as a free download.

I’ll share some of the observations and insights here…


Of those polled via email, Twitter, Facebook and blogs, the genetic makeup of respondents was diverse.

79% of all panelists resided in the United States.

14% work in Europe.

3% practice in Asia.

1% were divided across the Middle East, Australia, and South America.

Of those who participated in the study, marketing represented the largest group at 35% with Public Relations following at 28%. Social Media earned a spot in the top three with 17%

The experience was diverse, with 69% identifying themselves at the director level or above. Perhaps a pleasant surprise or simply just surprising, with 30%, the largest group of individuals who participated were at the executive level, including CMO, CEO or owner. Senior level, directors and program managers followed with 25%. At 19%, mid-career, account supervisors and account managers followed with the third largest group.

For this study, we received a well rounded response of divergent organizations. Corporations accounted for the largest sampling with 33%, which edged slightly ahead of agencies (marketing, PR, advertising, social media) with 32%. Next, self-employed/freelancers accounted for 14% of all responses with non-profit/trade associations checking-in with 12%. Education represented a healthy 7% followed by government with 2%

Participants scattered the business landscape, with a majority (42%) focusing their efforts in businesses that are generating less than $1 million. 19% responded on behalf of companies earning between $1-5 million. 15% work for organizations generating between $6 and $50 million. Businesses with over $1 billion in revenue represented 9%.

Popularity vs. Influence

The debate between influence and popularity is of particular interest. Many believe that one must have earned popularity in order to wield influence. However, as you’ll see in this report, influence and popularity could live in isolation from one another. And, according to participants of this study, 90% believed that influence is indeed different than popularity.

However, the insight is in the commentary. To help convey the perception of each, here are the words of participants for or against the difference in influence and popularity…


“Popularity is just that people like you. influence is when people listen to you.”

“Popularity is fleeting. Influence lasts”

“Lady GaGa is popular, Bono is influential.”


“Usually, the most influential things are the most popular.”

“Maybe they aren’t equal, but there is certainly a strong correlation.”

“But … one definitely bleeds into the other. More popularity = more visibility = more opportunity to influence”

Tweets, Status, Action

When asked if a correlation exists between an influencer’s reach and their ability to drive action, 84% said yes.

If we highlight a quote from the previous question, Lady Gaga and Bono are clearly two very popular people, but in the eyes of one particular panelist, Bono was clearly more influential. To shed a bit of light on the matter, we have to visit the history of Bono’s career. Over the decades, he has cultivated his community to expect personal views, experiences, and requests for help in and around his music and performances. Essentially, he has groomed his “followers” to take action and as a result, he has caused action.

Now, as we see, Lady Gaga is the living example of someone who is attempting to convert popularity into influence…and hopefully action. Recently, she led a charge to help repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” in an effort to stop the military’s gay ban. I believe that the shift from popularity starts with intention and activation.

To help us gain greater insight into the thinking behind the responses, let’s examine some of the commentary around the subject…

Reach Does Not Drive Action

“A person can have only a few contacts and greatly influence just those few.”

“I would say there’s a stronger correlation between an influencer’s depth and their ability to drive action”

Reach Drives Action

“The farther the reach, the greater the ability to drive action.”

“It’s certainly not a perfect correlation, but it definitely exists.”

Causing Measurable Outcomes

If the previous question assumes that reach is necessary in order to influence action, our next question represents a possible reversal in thinking. 57% believe that an individual with a tightly focused network of the 3Fs (friends, followers, and fans) would have a more measurable effect on outcome over someone with a much larger number of loosely connected friends, followers, and fans (36%).

Ranking Influence

Understanding the characteristics of influence is as important as studying influence itself. We asked our participants to rank a set of contributing factors that make a person or brand influential, where each number could only get used once.  As you can see, the numbers appear greatly divided, but also united.  5=best.

60% of respondents said the “quality or focus of the network was most important”

55% forced a tie between “quality of content” AND the “capacity to cause measurable outcomes”

40% ranked “depth of relationship” as their top choice.

If we combine 4’s and 5’s, we see similar results, but with a difference in hierarchy.

90% attribute influence to the quality or focus of a network

85% cited measurable outcomes

85% stated the quality of content was the top attribute of influence

78% equated influence to online reputation

77% believe that the number of RTs and shares establish influence

76% assign the depth of relationship to influence

The ability to drive traffic ranked 7th with 75%.

Why we Follow

Why we follow a person or organization says more about the mechanics for influence than we may imagine. Again, we asked those who participated in the study to rank the reasons they follow a person or company…each number could only appear once. 1=best.

The number one reason people follow others has everything to do with the quality and caliber of the content they share.

37% followed because they post interesting content

32% believe that relationships matter and therefore a personal connection is paramount

If we add 1’s + 2’s together we can see the nuances, the “dots” that define the picture through pointillism.

62% follow because of relevant content

51% considered those they follow as thought leaders

43% focused on the personal connection

Thought leadership enters the top 3 in this perspective and as such, becoming a thought leader and ultimately an influencer, is earned through the creation of valuable content and the cultivation of communities to take action.

Earning Influence, One Way or Another

If you could choose one, single most important action a person or brand could take to increase influence online, what would you choose? In this case, content ranks at the very top. And while content might appear as king, compelling content is defined by context and relevance. Only the content that connects with individuals is worthy of not only consumption, but also sharing.

Causing Measurable Action

In any new landscape, metrics are the waypoints that validate our journey on these uncharted paths. To assess the meaningful actions that equate to success, respondents graded several criteria…each number again could only make one appearance. 1=best.

There’s a sense of irony here in that almost one-third say “an action” is the most important metric, yet just more than one-third also said it’s the least important.

If we add 1’s + 2’s together we gain greater clarity…

Action ranks as a top metric for success with 37%

Page views is second as a success metric with 36%

Tweets surprisingly outranks clickthroughs with 32%

Clickthrough followed with 32%

When we examine the mean average for each, we see a slightly different hierarchy…

An action (purchase, registration, download, request for information, vote) 3.24

Views of a particular piece of content (video, post, landing page, site) 3.1

Mean Clickthrough rates via or website analytics 3.08

Bitmap Tweets, retweets, likes, posts 3.06

When defining success, it’s clear, social media and influence is not governed by a one size fits all approach. Social media experiences are personal and therefore, they’re unique for every organization. We can not measure what we do not value however, and as such, success must be defined upfront and appreciated as it’s realized.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness, But Can it Buy Influence?

A truly fascinating question often begets unexpected answers. Of those polled, 57% claimed that they would pay an influencer to help drive actions or outcomes.

To get a better understanding of who would pay for the leverage of influence, we broke out the question by industry…

Search/SEO contributed to the top category for “yes” but they also represented the smaller category of participants overall. As advertising pays its way to prominence as a matter of practice, it’s no surprise to see it rank among the top with 78% yes vs. 22% no. Although, in advertising, we’re seeing a dramatic rise in the fusion of paid and earned media or what I refer to as Hybrid Theory.  Marketing followed with 61% yes vs. 39% no. Social Media and PR tied for 5th, behind “other” with 52% yes as opposed to 48% no.

For those champions looking to either seek advice or approval from decision makers within your organization, look no further than the CEO or upper management. Each accounted for 63% and 60% respectively in their willingness to pay for influence.

Apparently it’s true, while money doesn’t grow on trees, it does grow on tweets.

Redefining Influence

In conclusion, we asked panelists to submit their working definition of influence in 140 characters or less. A word cloud was then generated to amplify the most common ingredients.

Let’s revisit the definition I proposed at the beginning of the discussion…Influence is the ability to cause desirable and measurable actions and outcomes

The first word that seems to have everyone’s focus is “ability” followed by “action” and the new 5th P of Marketing, “People.” Examining the other words reveals that we have before us, the recipe for influence and it might look a bit like this…







Now try to string together a working definition of your own based on this research.

In the end, it’s our job to become “the influencer.” We owe it to our communities of customers, prospects and the people who affect their decisions to lead by example. Then and only then, can we master the ability to influence the influencer.

Download the full study from Vocus.

If you’re looking for a way to FIND answers in social media, consider reading Engage!: It will help you…

Get Putting the Public Back in Public Relations and The Conversation Prism:

Image Source: Shutterstock

175 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Exploring and Defining Influence: A New Study”

  1. Kyle Lacy says:

    I need to reread this! There is so much valuable info here. Nice, clear graphics.

  2. ajleon says:

    Very interesting post, Brian. I've been following your blog more closely in the last few weeks and I feel like I'm in a classroom. Very in depth, thank you for putting these ideas out there for public consumption. It feels liberating to parse through research that support something that most of us in this space inherently feel. 🙂

  3. Frank Strong says:

    Nice post Brian, thank you. I'm especially interested in the Lady Gaga's efforts — will having a cause lead to influence — the ability as you say to drive a measurable outcome. I also wonder to what extent her audience will identify with her cause, which I feel is an important factor. I suppose that comes back to the question of how connected the audience is, which we explored a bit in this report.

  4. Joe Craig says:

    Insightful & helpful! Thank you Brian.

  5. Like AJ, I too feel like I am learning afresh in the last few weeks. Thank you, it has been delightful.

  6. Wow you explain the difference between popularity and influence very well!!! Brian, you are amazing when it comes to breaking down new ideas into very easily understandable chunks. Thank you!

  7. Lorelie says:

    Great reminder of what INFLUENCE is all about since it's easy to forget. Thanks for sharing this!

  8. Lee Frederiksen says:

    Here's what I like about this post and your treatment of an obviously important topic: you are using research to drive your opinions and understanding. Unfortunately many social media mavens are basing a lot of their perspectives and advise on their opinions and personal experience. While there is nothing wrong with opinions and experience using data as a foundation takes the argument to another level.I believe you are doing a lot to evevate the discussion. Well done…lwf

    • briansolis says:

      Lee, I try to approach all of the subjects with data and intelligence. Theories emerge based on analysis and my experiences surface when I put theory and data into practice. I strive to be a resource to the industry…not just another blogger. 🙂

  9. Hi Brian, if I may offer an example from an old community organizer: a leader is someone that others follow. Many people define leadership as the person in power, but that person often is not the actual leader. I believe that you can think of influence in a similar manner, as you have proven above in the Vocus study. Thanks for publishing these valuable insights.

  10. deanholmes says:

    Brian, time to talk. Some things in the works that relate to Influence (tell you when we talk). Very well rounded report.

    I love the depth you go into. Talk soon my man.

    Keep up the great reporting here, like the Influencer you are.

  11. Sam Gronner says:

    Fascinating research. Just came across some complementary work re: efficiency of influence and something the researchers call the k-shell value

  12. Thanks for this interesting and detailed analysis. I just have one problem with the phrasing you use with regards to “measurable”
    * For one question you ask: “Which person do you feel would have a more measureble effect on an outcome”. For me, this is not a clear question. A “measurable” effect is not the same as an effect. If I talk to my friends about brand X, and they buy it, that is not as measurable as a retweet, which may result in no purchase. Whether or not someone has a “measurable effect on an outcome” depends entirely on the visibility of their actions and the reactions to those actions – not their relative location or centrality in a network, their social capital, etc.
    * Likewise, your definition “Influence is the ability to cause desirable and measurable actions and outcomes.” can be interpreted as somewhat tautological – where what you can measure becomes the definition of what is influence. I suppose this suits a restricted context of social media monitoring and bottom line ROI concerns, but it may miss wider aspects overall.
    * Maybe by 'measurable' you mean 'perceivable', or 'significant'? Perhaps it's just a different understanding I have, not being American?

  13. Great research, Brian. It's not surprising to me that Social Media folks are less willing to pay for influence than others. Many higher-ups believe that anything to do with Social Media should be free. The platforms may be free, but influence – to take a line from Gaga vs Bono – is not “Pro-Bono.”

  14. pswiergosz says:

    Thanks Brian. Underscores a point I made to a colleague who defined a metric of success and influence by how many thousands of Facebook Friends their organization was able to cultivate. My unsophisticated rebuttal was: “Well, I only have about 20 “friends,” but every one of them will buy me a beer if I ask them. What will your “friends” do for you?” Action is the key…

  15. pswiergosz says:

    Thanks Brian. Underscores a point I made to a colleague who defined a metric of success and influence by how many thousands of Facebook Friends their organization was able to cultivate. My unsophisticated rebuttal was: “Well, I only have about 20 “friends,” but every one of them will buy me a beer if I ask them. What will your “friends” do for you?” Action is the key…

  16. CristianIsDaMan says:

    This was such a terrfic read. It's obvious you took a lot of time putting this together and thought about this study in an incredibly detailed way.

    Popularity is absolutely not influence, and this study proves it.

    Looking forward to your next piece. Maybe it should be about one's Klout Score. In Las Vegas, they are now going to have a 'Klout Score Club' if you can believe it.

  17. Mark W Schaefer says:

    Congratulations on a meaningful report presented in a compelling way. There is more to content than words on a screen, there are stories and you know how to tell stories, Brian. Good job.

    On your definition, I would add “through others.” In isolation, being able to cause desirable outcomes by your self is in not going to get much attention : )

    Thanks, Brian


  18. Brilliant research! Gives something to think about again, love the fact about money and influence – some time ago was writing about what the priests and social media professionals have in common and came to the conclusion than none of them are saint as it looks from the first sight – everyone likes money, even though but both groups have to sacrifice a lot for that influence and money so it’s a fair trade:)

  19. Rekha Srivatsan says:

    Great research, Brian. Influence is something that has been very easily misunderstood. Your post makes it easier to understood. Loved the graphics! Incredibly detailed research!

    -Rekha Srivatsan

  20. Aaron Burch says:

    Very interesting post Brian. Thanks for providing your insights on this important topic.

  21. Ban says:

    So good to see the stats behind the influence debate, puts things into perspective. I was wondering if you would have similar studies or posts in the future that address the Middle East. It's so difficult to find good information on marketing trends in the region.. just a suggestion.

  22. Jgordon5 says:

    Great study Brian. I get it: content and connections rule. In some ways all of social media is about facilitating connections via content.

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  24. Suzanne K. Klein says:

    Brian, thank you for sharing this wonderful study on such an important topic! It raises the question of how the best social media listeners make sense out of all the noise. The balance of influence vs. popularity seems especially difficult in B2B. Do you have any suggestions for us B2B listeners?

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