January 23, 2018

How to measure influence in social media marketing

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Measuring influence is the new obsession in the social media world—adding another layer of anxiety to the dark cloud of existential dread that is marketing ROI.

Social media present us as individuals seeking status within a community, which is something that humans have been working at since our days as monkeys. Indeed, science tells us that monkeys would rather look at pictures of high-ranking members of their troop than eat. The only difference between us and the monkeys is that we usually remember to eat while we watch the Oscars or check our Twitter follower counts.

Influence is the ability to affect others in their thinking or actions. But we need validation that it is happening. Since social media leave digital footprints, companies create complex algorithms to come up with simple answers to measuring social media influence. These fall into two categories:

  • The number generators. These tools assign a number to influence based on factors such as popularity, number of connections, and share of conversation. The best of these is still Technorati, because blogs are, in and of themselves, the most influential channel within social media. Face it, unless you can come up with enough to say to sustain a blog, it’s difficult to become influential. Others include Klout and Twitter Grader, which focus on the social networks. Another category of tools “gameify” influence by giving us fake shiny objects as rewards for engaging others. These include Foursquare and Empire Avenue. But all these numbers have little use beyond the ego stroke.
  • The monitors. These include the proprietary tools that look across all the online channels to determine how brands are being talked about. These social media monitoring tools have more use for marketers, but they require significant human intervention and can easily become very expensive versions of the number generators if not used with a goal in mind.

How to measure social media influence in a marketing context
Influence is usually presented in the context of figuring out who is engaging us and who we should be engaging with. But I think as marketers, we need to think bigger. I’d like to suggest that we look at influence as part of an integrated marketing strategy. In this context, influence has little to do with algorithms and more to do with something that marketers have been measuring for a long time: perception.

The two most important components of influence
I see successful marketers getting their companies to set two reference points to measure influence across all their marketing programs:

  • Who we are. Through surveys, both qualitative and quantitative, marketers ask their target audiences to tell them how they perceive the company. Classic versions of this are unaided awareness (“Name five IT services providers”) and aided awareness (“Have you heard of x company?”).
  • Who we want to be. This is where the strategy comes in. This reference point is in the future and requires careful definition. It requires all the key players in the company to decide how they want the company to influence the market in the future. For example, many ITSMA members are companies that began by selling B2B products but are now trying to become known as full-service solution companies. They have built or bought services divisions and created services offerings, but they cannot yet influence their target audiences to see them as anything other than product providers. Marketing’s job is to influence buyers to move from the existing perception to the new one—using all the available tools at its disposal.

Over time, we measure our influence by asking our target audience if they see our companies as we want them to be seen. Looked at this way, measuring influence becomes simpler and clearer.

What do you think?

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  • Nan Dawkins

    Hi Chris,very thoughtful post. We’re all suffering from data overload these days, so I see a lot of value in boiling down complex issues into straightforward concepts and metrics. You are right: At the end of the day, if surveys indicate that the target audience perceive a brand the way the brand wants to be perceived, this is a pretty good indicator that things are going well (i.e., that the audience is being influenced in the right direction).

    Unfortunately, this indicator doesn’t tell us WHY things are going well. It doesn’t tell us WHAT is working (and what is not working so that waste can be cut from the marketing budget to improve efficiencies). And this is why the industry is so fascinated with the “number generators” and “the monitors”. If a marketer can: 1.) Identify influencers and 2.) Track what happens as a result of various attempts to engage with those influencers, then *the formula* begins to emerge (the formula that says “if I do X, I’m likely to get Y”). Quantifying things at a more micro level also creates points of context that allows marketers to judge the value of one channel or type of activity over another – a non-negotiable requirement in the “prove the ROI” environment marketers currently live in.

    Both types of indicators are needed and a focus on either in exclusivity probably isn’t sufficient. Too much focus on metrics from the number generators and the monitors puts us at risk of not being able to see the forest for the trees (and wasting time on numbers that might not be all that meaningful). But tracking awareness and perception in isolation doesn’t provide us with sufficient directional knowledge.

    In any event, the concept of influence in social media is a hairball (and for some reason I’m drawn to it). Trying to unravel it is maybe a little like following the Tour through the Alps – tedious, exhausting, kind of crazy, and very, very exciting, at least to some people (Count me in on both; I’ve heard great things about that Tour trip!).

  • Hi Nan,

    Wow, some great stuff to chew on here! Good point that we do need the monitors for listening to conversations and tracking interactions. I guess where my skepticism comes in is whether we really need the monitors and number generators to discover these people. Is it really so hard to figure out who the influential voices are in your marketplace? The big influencers are visible–that’s how they got to be influential, right? I’m also not convinced that the formula for engaging with them is rocket science, either. Be smart, be experienced, be knowledgeable, offer smart content, be nice, and don’t try to sell them anything. And do all of this often. I’m not saying it’s easy, but the path seems pretty straightforward.And you stole my heart with your Tour reference but the formula for leading a bike tour is pretty simple too, it’s the *execution* that nearly kills you (but what a way to go!). I guess my overall point is that we try to make this more of a hairball than it is. Thanks for a really thoughtful, insightful comment!


  • Chris, I really like this idea. If we are not able to change perceptions, then we really are not influential to the audience we want to influence or in the category we need to be influential in.

    If I can add one additional wrinkle here, if perspectives are changing, in today’s connected and social environment, this is likely more than integrated marketing. It is a successful execution of the strategy across the organization. It includes experiences with your products and solutions, with your sales, account management and customer support teams, … in short, the experience with the whole organization.

  • Nan Dawkins

    Well, as to the question of how hard it is to find true influencers that are worth engaging, I just wrote about that on the WOMMMA blog: http://ht.ly/4acLg. I think it IS pretty hard when you are a brand looking for influencers who are truly relevant to your category (and agree with you that a lot of the “number generators” make these judgements based on pretty shaky ground). Yes, the top people – in terms of sheer audience size — are pretty easy to find, but I think there is a lot of value (and scalability) in engaging with folks who have smaller, more trust based networks (if they talk about topics that are relevant to your brand).

    And I’m with you on the execution issue as well. The planning and strategy part are always a heck of a lot easier than just getting out there and doing what you know in your gut needs to be done. (I’m currently training for my third Ironman triathlon and have now officially reached the “what were you thinking?” stage in the training process. If I survive this one, I’m really going to consider going on one of those Tour trips next year!)

    Thanks again for a great post!

  • Good point, Nan. I think that the monitors can be a big help in finding some of the diamonds in the rough that you speak of. Thanks again!


  • Great point, Eric. I think that increasingly, marketing must become a reflection of the strategy of the company and the aspirations of its customers rather than “pick us, we’re great.” I think the success of IBM’s Smarter Planet is that it is a reflection of what IBM does with customers and is also a brilliant encapsulation of what customers would like to do inside their companies. For example, the research shows that companies want to get better at using data (become smarter) and are concerned about climate change but need to address that through efficiency. What we call “business themes” like Smarter Planet are an emerging best practice for B2B marketing. Thanks for contributing!


  • Anonymous

    I like this Chris. A more holistic way to look at metrics which forces meaningful action beyond racking up followers and fans.

  • Thanks, Laura!


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  • Before read your post it was my misconception that we can’t measure our social media efforts and marketing influence but now i am well aware that we can easily measure it and make our strategy more effective and useful. 

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