Social media influence cannot be measured

22 May 2009

A few different projects have got my mind focused on influence this week. The first is planning the research design for the centrepiece of my book on social media in B2B (can we measure the influence that social media platforms have on the different staging of the B2B buying cycle?). The second is connected with our cooperation next month with Twitter at the Cannes Lions.

In both contexts I am reaching the conclusion that influence cannot be measured, and thus is a futile metric for exploration. Sure, you can ask people how much influence something has or has had, but do they really know? And what is influence anyway? In my mind it is a power that makes someone do something, not a property that any individual possesses. Invariably when an individual does have influence, it is only over a specific thing. Even the most influential people in the world (politicians, one could argue) have no influence over whether I will buy a Sony or a Panasonic television this weekend.

In a public environment, you might (just) be able to attempt to measure influence by looking at people’s networks, the re-communication of their utterances, but to me this is just reach. Someone who says something that reaches 100,000 people is no more influential than someone who reaches just 100, if all of the latter act on that communication but none of the former do.

In short, influence needs to be measured in context and at the receiving end not the transmitting end. That is not something you can do by looking at their blog posts, tweets or Facebook profile.

So do we continue to try and measure things that cannot be measured, or do we measure things that can be measured and can give us as marketers comparisons that we understand.

I think it’s the latter.

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9 Responses to “Social media influence cannot be measured”

  1. Joseph Ranseth

    This is very similar to in-person communication… We can measure a lot about the differences between people, but those who really influence us usually end up being described as ‘there is something different about them’.
    Measuring the # of friends, tweets, updates, etc that a person makes are just external observations. True influence is something that comes from within…

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  4. BarbaraFrench


    I’ve been following you for a while on The Customer Collective, and am surprised by this post.

    To me, you are essentially saying that social media influence measurement efforts should end with outputs. No outtakes, no outcomes.

    It comes across to me as more of an advertising measurement conversation. In short, it seems more like a lead-up to AVE (advertising value equivalent) than a lead-up to measuring an individual’s influence.

    The simple social media statistics — audience reach, social graphs, etc. — aren’t the end goal. They’re just part of the equation that helps you figure out how influential a person is and with whom and about what.

    You can’t give up on going from the simple stats to the big picture.

  5. Niall Cook

    @Barbara. I obviously haven’t been clear in this post. I am completely saying that influence is all about outcomes. My problem is that everyone who tells me they can measure influence actually only measures outputs, then applies some kind of voodoo to come up with a calculation of influence and sells it to marketers who don’t know any different.

  6. Duncan Brown

    Hello Niall. As I’m one of the people that claims to measure influence (no voodoo though!), I think your comments are pretty close to describing the problem. For sure, influence is specific to the topic in hand. And reach is an awful measure of influence in isolation. And (most importantly) if you ask people who influences them, they generally don’t know.

    However, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Influence can be measured. You need a balance of outputs (eg reach, frequency) and inputs (eg expertise, independence). You need a good understanding of the decision process that you’re trying to influence. And you need a process for uncovering influence where it exists. The reason that people don’t know who influences them is that there are too many influences for them to recall. A more complex research approach is required.

    Finally, the impact of social media is overstated. Certainly, people are as likely to be influenced in the ‘real’ world as they are in the online world, and one is not a proxy for the other. This is particularly true in B2B markets.

    Influence is an abstract concept, but can and should be measured by identifying its constituent elements. Just because it’s hard to do doesn’t meant we shouldn’t try.

    Good luck with the book.

  7. BarbaraFrench

    Thanks for clarifying. Glad to know we are on the same wave length.

    We should add “voodoo” as a product/service feature. Best voodoo wins, what they win is another matter…

  8. Niall Cook

    @BarbaraFrench A box of pins?

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