Heather Bussing, Editor, HR Examiner Editorial Advisory BoardHeather Bussing is an employment attorney and is the Editorial Advisory Board editor at HR Examiner. Full Bio »

I’m not drinking the algorithmic Kool-Aid of influence measurement.

Influence is not something that can be accurately measured based on counting digital breadcrumbs on the internet.

Tracking links to blog posts through social media and counting who retweets what is about as interesting as watching dye spread on paper. Yes, iIt moves. It goes places you can follow. It’s evidence that someone did something. But it doesn’t mean much. At least, not anything that matters to me.

Basing influence on how many people follow you doesn’t mean much either. They many never read your stuff. And they could all stop following you tomorrow. But most won’t because they don’t visit very often anyway.

Keywords don’t tell you anything either. Just because someone uses a word doesn’t mean they have something to say.

When people link to a blog post on Facebook or retweet a link on Twitter, it means that something caught their attention for a moment. That’s it.There is no way to know if they read it, if they agree or disagree, if they thought it was important, funny or stupid, or even if they knew what they were posting. The idea of tracking social media activity is based on the assumption that if it causes people to do something, it is important or influential. Nonsense.

For YouTube’s 5th Birthday in 2010, Time Magazine published the Top Viral Videos. They were:

  1. Charlie Bit My Finger
  2. Evolution of Dance
  3. David After Dentist
  4. “Here It Goes Again”
  5. Rickroll
  6. Leave Britney Alone
  7. Don’t Tase Me, Bro
  8. Keyboard Cat
  9. Dramatic Chipmunk
  10. Hitler’s Downfall
  11. Flea Market Montgomery
  12. “United Breaks Guitars”
  13. Kittens, Inspired by Kittens
  14. Potter Puppet Pals
  15. Jill and Kevin’s Big Day
  16. Sneezing Panda
  17. Otters Holding Hands
  18. Literal Music Videos
  19. OMG, Shoes
  20. Baby Laughing

For those of you wondering whether it’s improved in the last year, the Top Videos for 2011 list starts with Rebecca Black.

This stuff is funny. It’s entertaining. And sometimes it even makes a difference in the world. The United Breaks Guitars Video got a big corporation to pay attention to the damage it caused, and dropped United’s stock price by 10% in the short run.

Still, I saw the Breaks Guitars video, along with millions of other people; it didn’t change my life–not even a little. I found it interesting. I may have even tweeted it or “liked” it (I doubt it). It did not influence me.

Influence is more than just getting me to click or post.  Influence is something that changes the way I see or think about things. Something influences me when it makes a difference in my life that matters– in my relationships, art, work, spirituality and values.

Often the things that influence me don’t cause me to do anything that can be directly tied to the original experience or idea.

I teach law school because I really hated law school and wanted to do it differently.

I practice employment law because I grew up in the 60’s and was fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement and the concept of equality among people.

I am terrified of falling from heights because I had to walk across a train trestle high above of a rushing river in Peru when I was 8.

These are things that had distinct and profound influences on me. But the events and the results are years apart and have complex layers of action, inaction and other facts and forces woven into them.

For example, I went to law school because I was a philosophy major and didn’t want to have to get a job yet. How do you measure that?

Psychologists, Sociologists, Historians, Cultural Geographers, Anthropologists, Economists, Marketing and PR Departments and John Sumser have been trying to figure out cause and effect in human behavior for years. Now the computer scientists and programmers are in on the search.

Sure, on some cosmic level, everything is connected. The butterfly migration in China can probably tell us something about the weather in Norway. But digging deeper into minutia, especially patterns of clicks and posts about babies farting and kittens waving their little paws seems like the wrong direction to look for insight and meaning.

Today, collecting data is easy, cheap and there is more if it than ever before. We’re just figuring out what it means, if anything. Interesting questions, pictures and stories are emerging.

Yet, counting digital droppings does not really explain what ideas and experiences matter to me or anyone else. And if it doesn’t matter, then it’s not influence.


The latest Pieces on Influence

  • Anonymous

    This article strikes me as a thinly-veiled attack on Klout and other services attempting to quantify influence. Note the word: attempt. Klout has chosen its own operational definition of influence and has created a methodology around it. Now, like any good research, it’s in the process of proving the hypothesis – that the algorithm measures influence (as they definite it) accurately.

    To paste influence into realm of intangibles that no method can fully measure is a cop out, and to criticize those organizations and people out there who are attempting to do so is just spiteful. In fact, I think you are out and out wrong with the following statement: “Yet, counting digital droppings does not really explain what ideas and experiences matter to me or anyone else.”

    Yes, it does. It explains the things you like to view and consume. What any psychologist will tell you, for the person having viewed the “thing” in question, there was an internal motivation to interact with said “thing”. What, then, was the *cause* of the internal motivation? That’s the influence. It follows that if you are regularly interacting with “things” from the same “something”, then that “something” influences you. And finally, if “something” influences you, you’re likely to share it with your friends. This is what Klout is trying to demonstrate.

    I would argue that in a click, in a view, in a “like” there is a moment of matter and influence, even if the moment is but a second.

  • Heather Bussing

    Thanks for your comment Jonathan. I am more than happy to be wrong on this. 

    I just think there is a qualitative difference between the things we click on the internet & the things we share with our friends for amusement versus ideas and experiences that really make a difference in our lives.  Sure, part of my trouble is with the term “influence” itself. I concede to making one of those philosophy moves of defining influence away from how it is being commonly used in social media and marketing. So your point there is valid.I’m curious, has anyone found a correlations between sharing things on twitter and facebook and sales or income to source being shared? Or is this what the companies are still trying to figure out?

  • Great post, Heather.  The push/hype of “influence” reminds me of sales in being very number’s driven.  As if merely having a number that is good enough makes me valuable on the social media scene.  Of course valuable to what end? 

    I continue to see and follow folks who have a passion about something.  It could be the amount of learning they’ve done in a particular subject, as skill they’ve turned into a remarkable talent or a point of view that is artful conveyed.  I respond to that and it matters to me.  Rather than trying to get me to do something (transaction/sales) I’m better informed, more aware etc.  I’m influenced.

    Data, if shown in a trend, is meaningful (what I appreciate about HRExaminer). Wondering if so and so made the top 10 list is fleeting, distracting and messy.

  • Heather Bussing

    I also find some great people and content that influences my thinking. I’m in a particularly great place to do that as the editor for the HR Examiner Editorial Advisory Board.

    One of the things I’m trying to understand is the differences between John’s Top 100 project and the Top 25 lists.

    In the Top 100 Influencers, John interviewed hundreds of people and asked them who they thought was influential in HR. Then he interviewed hundreds of those people about what they were doing and how it affected people working in HR and Recruiting.  The people he picked (and continues to choose) as Top 100 Influencers are based on his and people he repects’ assessments of the quality of their work and their influence on others. It’s based on merit.

    One of the really interesting things John discovered is that there are many profoundly influential practitioners who simply don’t have the time to spend or interest in blogging or tweeting. They are too busy working.

    The Top 25 lists are determined by algorithm based on key words, volume of content on the internet-blog and social media posts, and on the number of people they interact with-followers on social media. There is no assessment of quality or whether the posts are ever read or considered by the followers. So while there may be lots of noise, there may or not be merit.

    It’s interesting to see how quickly and substantially the Top 25 lists change over time. And it’s interesting to compare who shows up on the Top 25 and Top 100 lists.

    At this point, I still vote for quality over quantity and noise.

  • It’s not clear what we’re measuring when we track online content, the various references to it and the audiences for it. Low information quality certainly isn’t a determining factor in whether or not something is influential. Just take a look at the (insert your least favorite political party here).

    If the important parts of influence were virtues like integrity, honesty, fairness or justice, we wouldn’t live in a world built on their opposites. Fashion and taste, which are culturally determined, change rapidly and move through societies like an epidemic. If merit drove influence, imagine how wonderful the world would be for the meritorious.

    Influence is no more and no less than the ability to increase the likelihood that something will happen. It can be good, bad and indifferent. While Heather points to a particularly adult view of how to consume influence, it scarcely means that that’s what influence is most of the time.
    The thing I like most about my investigations of influence is that I have vastly more questions than answers after two and a half years.

    To focus in on the question.

    If someone has no published ideas and no pointers to those unpublished ideas, they have no influence in the online world. They may have enormous
    influence elsewhere and good for them. But when a new member of the
    industry (or a curious decision maker) goes to look for answers and
    insight, their voice can not be heard because it isn’t there.

    On the other hand, if someone has huge volumes of content and lots of
    pointers to the content, they are liable to end up at the top of the search
    engine results. Their influence on new industry members will be
    disproportionally large. If you are building a career, what you want to do
    is impact the new players. They are easier to acquire and keep as customers.

    If what you are curious about is the evolution of the conversation within
    the industry, it’s harder to pin down. In those discussions, introductory
    level key words are not as extensively used. Figuring out how to measure
    influence in action in the ranks of mid level execs and their information
    wizards is an extremel;y difficult problem.

    So, while I agree that the results are muddy, I heartily disagree that that
    makes the question meaningless. The only way to understand our emerging
    universe is by experimenting until we understand how it works.

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  • Heather, I really love this article and it resonates a lot with my thoughts on the subject which I wrote about last year here http://bit.ly/igo5t0 As I said there and I’d repeat, this isn’t beating up on one system or methodology (and certainly isn’t intended as a pop at John – I wouldn’t dare) but more taking about the real meaning of influence.

    I referenced the work of Christakis there, who if you haven’t read I strongly recommend.

    Thanks for your thoughts above and yours too John.


  • Heather,

    You may be a great employment attorney, but I respectfully suggest that you have much to learn about behavioral economics. 

    Just on the most basic, visible, obvious level, top search engine ranking results in more sales and income.  I don’t think you can find a single informed person who would dispute that. 

    As John notes, huge volumes of content and lots of pointers to that content create higher search engine rankings, e.g.  greater sales and income.  To make some distinction between blogging and tweeting and “work” is meaningless in many cases.  In my own firm, a former middle of the pack salesperson has pulled far away from his peers, with the only difference in behaviour being comprehensive use of social media to enhance his own influence. 

    The current techniques of surveys and mechanistic quantification of backlinks/content are imperfect proxies for measuring influence, but they ARE proxies.

    I do however, disagree with John when he states that if someone has no published ideas and no pointers to those unpublished ideas, they have no influence in the online world, but they may have enormous influence elsewhere.   There ain’t no elsewhere: the real world and the online world are enmeshed in an emergent, chaotic way that simply will never be untied again. 

    Correlations between sharing things on twitter and facebook and sales or income to source being shared ?   R U kidding?

    Insights as to causation and correlation can be incredibly tricky, but the general proposition that online branding/influence and real world effects are connected (in many instances) is not reasonably debatable.

  • Thanks for this post Heather; an interesting perspective indeed. 

    I think that influence algorithms today mostly serve as a yardstick of how people influence others online, rather than measuring actual ‘life influence’ as you suggest. Measuring how many ‘likes’ someone has attained from a post is, on its own, not a good representation of influence – I’m with you here. I think thought that what these tools are attempting to gauge is this: has Johnny Online influenced folks across his network enough so that they actually engage and reply, or share his posts with their own constituents? Then, how does this impact my engagement with Johnny and in what way?

    I’d agree with the notion of not fully drinking the Kool-Aid (which, in itself is probably life lesson #9!), but if these measurement tools can help me gauge a person’s influence, I like. I want.

    Looking at this in the context of recruiting, for example, things can get pretty interesting. At Reppify, we look at influence through the eyes of a recruiter in the pre-screening stage of a hire and provide this as an important part of our tool: If I’m hiring a developer and wading through my stack of top candidates, information that provides an indication of whom these candidates are beyond their resumes and how each person might perform in the role I’m hiring for is huge. Johnny Online’s Klout score, for example, says little on its own in terms of his level of influence on others.  However, if via Johnny’s candidate report I can see that he has an ‘Exceptional’ Influence rating, I’m at least interested to know more. Then I see that he creates five posts per week across his networks and gets responses to 75% of those posts. I also learn, via his Klout information shown, that Johnny is a ‘Thought Leader’ and influences others about mobile development, Java, and iOS apps. Now this influence business becomes truly valuable – information at my fingertips that I wouldn’t have otherwise known before talking to Johnny – now I’m excited to get on the phone with the guy! 

    While there are perhaps imperfections in the influence-measuring game today (as Mr. Sumser alludes to in his post today, and as he, Martin, and others point out above) and still a road ahead, I think that when used in context – whether in actual recruiting efforts or understanding whom one should pay attention to around specific topics – having access to these influence-measuring yardsticks can provide real meaning and value.

  • I always get labeled as biased with what I am about to say given I rarely leave the Minneapolis/St Paul area but here goes…
    I am always curious about influence not on a digital basis but a national, regional and local one.

    John has been talking for years about recruiting being local, what about influence?

    If we start with a group of people on the national scene and they almost only hang out with their colleagues on the national scene then how deep does the influence go?

    Jennifer McClure during one of her social media sessions at MN SHRM cited Fistful of Talent as a resource and getting some blank looks then asked if those in the room (50-60 of whom 65% work in or near MSP metro area) knew of the site and only 2 hands were sort of raised. 

    So I wonder about influence in another way… is it only top to down?

    How do we measure the influence of the folks in Sioux Falls, Duluth,
    Des Moines, etc on their regional and local groups, practitioners, business communities, etc?

    I think there is as much “danger” in using digital droppings to measure influence as there is in asking people who influence them when many come from the same pool.

  • That’s a great question, Paul. Really great.

    My bet is that, in the long haul, this sort of stuff will be precisely targeted at some definition of ‘local’. In the meantime, the way to get it straight is by continuing to try to get it right.

  • This discussion could devolve into a theory of literature, since most of what we are talking about is the written word, although YouTube and Skype etc. are moving the online world, ever so gradually, into one of performance and not just publishing.

    But my comment yesterday is a perfect example: it would “measure” as a single comment on a single site, but it was referred to in several posts and my name exposed (first exposure in most cases) to a number of people.  If for any reason my name has cause to pass them again, for a second or third time, my ability to influence those individuals in the future is vastly enhanced. 

    Advertising does not attempt (or expect) to sell on a single exposure, as an obvious example of that mechanism at work.

    As to thousands of tweets not selling more books, we are in an era where you dont have to buy the book to get to the ideas expressed (or at least the key ideas) which is a radical change/expansion of how literary criticism is done and what is means.  

    Influence is not a steady-state, its more like potential or positional energy- stored until a time at which it is released as a meme or result, but not possible to quantify in a quantum sense until the conditions for its use can also be quantified.  

    Again, current measurements are proxies and grossly inaccurate, but the effects are real.       

  • I’m sort of puzzled by this thread. That the web profoundly influences the way we see reality is beyond question, as Marty Snyder notes. Any investigation of search literacy will clearly tell you that what matters is placement on Google’s first page.

    The various experiments in measuring influence are all about trying to understand whose voice is the loudest (and therefore the top of the search results). Although it may well be a better world if influence were limited to high quality, positive and life affirming values, it isn’t.

    A significant part of the critique comes from the fact that the measurements are imperfect at best and primitive at worst. That’s how innovation happens. Stupid ideas (like everyone needs a personal computer) transform the world. Smart ideas like ‘that doesn’t work because it’s imperfect’ are the way that Luddites bury their heads in the sand.

    Take a look at http://searchengineland.com/how-rick-santorum-is-making-his-google-problem-worse-106665 . The story talks about the problems that the Santorum campaign is having with getting their online reputation properly curated. Do they care because online information has no influence? HArdly.

    This morning, I was trying to find office supplies online. I asked around the house about the spelling for the kind of store taht sells that sort of thing. Was it stationary or stationery?

    A quick look online found a number of stationary stores. Even Crane’s, the paper and notecard maker, used this spelling. It took a deeper dig to verify that the correct spelling is stationery.

    Crane’s and its competitors use the wrong spelling in order to reach the sorts of people who make this little spelling error. The problem gets recursive as others, using the web to check spelling errors come upon the stationery stores’ marketing tactics.

    What is online is what is.

    Were I betting on this, I’d expect the work of measuring and understanding influence to deepen and broaden. 

  • Heather started the post with, “… algorithmic Kool-Aid of influence measurement”. Unless I am mistaken, I think we are speaking about Klout and tools like it.

    I, too, think the problem might start with the way we are defining and using the word influence. Loosely, it means to drive someone to action. Where the action can be measured but the “drive” cannot. Strictly, it means power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways. You cannot measure either. The results, maybe.

    Whether we are talking about selling an item, swaying someone to your political views, or getting someone to adopt your ideas about your industry… Klout or any other algorithm cannot measure that.

    What they can measure, I think, is engagement. I love Klout and other scoring utilities. I am a sanguine personality temperament and am motivated by popularity and praise. So you won’t find an argument from me if I have a higher Klout score. But I cannot kid myself or people that look to me for advice on the matter. I know what algorithms tracking social media measure: clicks, following/follower ratios, mentions, ReTweets, comments, et al. Fundamentally, they are measuring a form of engagement.

    I suppose with the offering of the above definitions one could argue that clicking and ReTweeting and following is an action that was taken as a result of influence and so my points are moot. But I think we can all agree that when we talk about our personal desire to influence people – which is tacitly stated when we sign up on a social media platform to broadcast our thoughts – that our very human desire to be heard and affect people’s thinking and influence them goes beyond the initial enagagement of a click, follow or mention.

    I know I want people to engage me in those ways, to be sure. I want them to be influenced by the thoughts I present in those interactions and adopt my ideas, challenge me, and take real action.

  • This is an interesting thread!  Influence is alive and kicking – offline and online.  Its been around online for over a decade but, for me, the problem with the current attempt to define influence is that it is aiming at the wrong people.

    8 years ago my wife changed career and as part of that embarked on a journey that introduced her to forums and online groups where her peers hung out.  I wrote an article at the time – before i found blogging! – where i observed that this group of peers that she had never met had effectively neutered the brand/marketing spend of the products that she was about to purchase.  She started to draw all her spending influence from online peers, most of whom she had never met.

    It is this collective and sometimes individual influence or wisdom that makes a difference – much more so than the influence of the ‘rock stars’, in my opinion.  The attempt to measure influence and build it around those with high profile is nothing new – we were doing that before the online days.  In fact, doing this misses the whole point/difference of the social mesh – the influencers are the mass of individuals like you and me.  Go check out Amazon or “my favourite forum dot com” or wherever to see that.  Social democratises influence and means we dont have to look to one or two ‘experts’ or be influenced by he who has the highest profile.

    So in that way i do disagree with John when he says “If someone has no published ideas and no pointers to those unpublished ideas, they have no influence in the online world”.  There are millions of people out there in the online world that have huge influence yet have never published an idea.  It’s just that these are Joe Schmo’s who are influencing their friends and family and other loosely connected individuals.  They are real.  But they are not rock stars.

    Sure, if you are some vacuous PR looking for a short cut to the most influential people in the online world on fashion for example, and you need a a quick way to determine which people have that and therefore which people get the invite then go ahead and use these tools.  But as the social world develops (it is still embryonic) i suspect that this is not where the currency of true influence will lie.

  • What a great thread you sparked Heather. Thank you. Your bullet points, Paul DeBettignies’ and Neil Morrison’s comments as well resonated the most with my experience.

    Seems to me that influence (assuming we were to agree on just what it is- which hasn’t happened yet) is partly what is being tapped via the online calculations. Emphasis on partly. Some folks just want to embrace it as if it were a 1:1 reflection and, of course, Klout by its very name implies the same.  

    Certainly its not sufficient (to me at least) to call the quantity of followers of online musings influence. Even with John’s added Reach, Relevance and Resonance, too many other factors are missing. Still, it makes for great conversation.

    About definitions. The comments Neil made (particularly if you follow his links to his blog) on measuring an ‘effect’ on an individual’s life is what I find missing in online measures. While my sources of inspiration around ‘influence’ are different, more academic, and go back to the original off-line studies of power and influence, they don’t add more to this conversation than what Neil has said.

    I think Paul also adds a critical component that is missing. Reality embraces both the online and the off-line worlds. And it is in the off-line world that we see most of the ‘effect’. Paul points out that in his ‘locale’ few people ‘knew’ FOT. My take on his comment: If you spend most of your time building an online persona it is easy to imagine that your online conversation fills the universe and some how trickles down out of the internet into everyone’s consciousness. How amazing it is to then discover how little your footprint really is. How big a deal is your online ‘Influence ranking’ if it effects such a small number of the people who make up the universe of your profession?

    So John (Sumser), what if, in addition to the scores you develop, you were to ask ‘front line doers’ – people who actually accomplish stuff. People who are actually transforming their firms right now. People who are ‘admired’ for innovating recruiting methods and strategies in real companies affecting 10s of thousands of lives. And ask 100 of them “who influences you the most?” “Who do you follow BECAUSE you learn about new things to try?” “Who has changed your life professionally?” (I’ll leave this up to you to wordsmith)

    Then see if any of those ‘scores’ correlate with the names that get mentioned more often. Just a thought.

  • Great post and interesting comment stream.  My concern with measuring influence is that it’s still a numbers game. I go back to the analogy of a blog where the blog does not get much traction in terms of numbers of visits or comments; but where the regular reader / watcher is someone with social capital / influence in civil society – say a mainstream media journalist, a political agent, a teacher. Is that blog influential? When influence is such a loaded political term in the first place? My research on blogging in the hyperlocal keeps tugging away from Shirky’s Power law theory and into more strategic territory. I thought your post is spot on, both in terms of its scepticism – and thinking that we may still be counting the wrong stuff.  The question of online influence, of course, remains very important.  It may just be that we may need to apply some critical theory in addition to the various Klouts of this world.

  • Love this and agree.  Influence is deep and may take years to be evident or passed along.  Like how important it is to talk nicely to your mother – you learn this really well, when you become a mother. 

    Thanks Heather.  Inciteful and Insightful, as always. 

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