Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Limits Of Online Influence

Added on by Tom Webster.

On Friday, I instigated a call to help a friend of mine in New Zealand. What I asked for was not money, and not much time, really; rather, I asked for people to record a short message (20 seconds max) in support of the people in Christchurch who have suffered so much from the earthquakes that have plagued their wonderful city. I'm passionate about this, so I recruited some heavy hitters to help. I'm ever so grateful that people like Chris Brogan, Ed Shahzade, Olivier Blanchard, Jason Falls and many, many more helped me spread the word on Twitter about this effort, which gave my plea for help a far greater audience than I ever could have imagined.

In fact, you could look at my request for help, from a purely business perspective, as what a marketer would consider an "influencer outreach program." Instead of promoting a brand or product, I was hoping that these influencers would help me motivate people all over the world to record short messages of hope for the people of Christchurch, to be played on local radio stations in place of the ads no one is in the mood to hear right now.

What I didn't expect was the absolute clinic this exercise would give me in the workings of online "influence," and the difference between the weak ties of social networks and the strong ties of personal networks.

You see, how this story is supposed to end is this: hundreds of thousands of people heard my plea for help, and overwhelmed my server with messages of hope. The number of messages and the outpouring of passion and love for this cause brought the Interwebs to its knees. The people of New Zealand clung to those messages of hope - and another social media legend was born.

This did not happen.

Since I am not in the business of social media consulting, and I am not a social media marketer, per se, I have no fear of sharing these numbers with you.

First, the simple reach of my message was enormous. I used Tweetreach to gauge the reach of my message, as propagated by some seriously influential Twitter users, and to approximate the gross number of "impressions" my message enjoyed. So far, though I published this post over a "quiet" weekend, the reach of my message easily exceeded 600,000 - in fact (again, according to Tweetreach) the potential reach of my specific Twitter message alone was well over 300,000 and the actual number of "impressions" (from multiple retweets) exceeded 400,000.

Now, according to the various measures of online influence, my influence is OK, I guess - top third, anyway. The people who helped me, however, had influence "scores" within the top quintile and even decile of all Twitter users. If anyone is "good at Twitter," it's the folks who did me the great honor of retweeting my plea for help - some of them, multiple times - to lend me their megaphones and hopefully turn this into a wildly successful effort. Thanks to them, well over half a million people had the opportunity to see my call for help.

Back to my specific tweet, I ran my link through Argyle Social to track how many people came to my site to actually read my post through my original link. Interestingly, though there were numerous retweets through other URL shorteners and link-wrapping services, in the end almost none of the links to my site came from those - instead, virtually all of the people who clicked through to my post came via my original link.

The raw numbers on my link: 308,000+ reach, 410,000+ impressions, 389 clicks.

Yup, 389. Well below, I might add, what I might get for a good "regular" article on my blog, but not exponentially below. Still, I'm not arrogant enough to assume that my content is blameless here, so I'm more than willing to grant that maybe I didn't "sell" it well, or perhaps my call to action was weak. I'll stipulate all of that.

Still, 389 clicks out of over 400,000 impressions is under .01% - this is pop-up ad territory. Certainly no better than the worst AdWords copy, despite the online influence scores of the folks who helped me spread the word.

Here's the real rub: From those 400,000 impressions (and again, in reality far more - I only tracked my own original link through Argyle Social) and 389 clicks I got exactly 10 submissions. As in ten.

I'm no numbers whiz, but that's an actual impression-to-action rate of .0025%. Cold calling is better. Door-to-door salesmen do better. Hell, anyone could do better with a phone book.

Yet, I ran a classic "influencer" campaign. I certainly can't complain about the level of support I received, at least if my definition of support was the nebulous "help me spread the word." I'm enormously grateful to my friends, more influential than I, who propagated this message for me. In the end, however, it didn't matter. The response, especially compared to the potential response, was laughably low.

Of the people who did respond - the people who recorded their 20-second messages of hope and emailed them to me - I have broken bread with all but a few. Some of them are my dearest friends - people like Matt Ridings, Amber Naslund, Tamsen McMahon, DJ Waldow, Jason Falls - influencers, yes, but real friends that I have offline relationships with. My dear friend Rashmi Iyer, all the way from Dubai, chipped in with a message, as did Ike Pigott and Raul Colon, genuinely good souls whom I've yet to meet. I'm unspeakably grateful to those people. Maybe, if you are reading this, you meant to leave a message and just haven't found the time yet. It's not about you, and it isn't too late (go do eeet!). What this experience suggests to me, however, is that if you thought online influence has been a bit oversold, you are wrong. It's been exponentially oversold.

If your brand's sole goal is to hoard retweets and social media mentions, then by all means, an influencer campaign is a marvelous way to go. If your goal is to stimulate some action beyond the easily given, easily forgotten retweet, however, your results may not be so clear cut. Some influencers may not want to read or accept this message, I'll grant - perhaps, they'll see it as sour grapes from one who is disappointed that his "campaign" was not successful. Well, my "campaign," such as it is, wasn't successful - and I wasn't even selling anything. Sure, that's demonstrably true. Yet, I don't judge anyone who did or did not participate in this effort. What is on trial here are not the individuals - its the very concept of the "power" of weak ties to influence action.

My dear friend Matt Ridings (you might have seen him as Techguerilla on the Twitters) has more tangible experience running online influencer campaigns than anyone I know - he's super sharp, practical, and frankly brilliant about making these things actually work both for brands and for the people these brands hope to reach. He assures me that the real problem was that I didn't design the effort well enough. Instead, he notes that "people need to a) see that the influencer took the action (the influencer truly believes) b) be presented with an action simple enough for them to easily participate and allow competition to take hold ("I can make a better audio clip than you did,") and c) see results made public to allow a & b to occur in such a way that they believe the influencer will actually see that they did it for *them* vs. the cause, thus garnering attention for themselves."

In other words, I didn't "gamify" the effort in a way that would bring influence, notoriety or some other tangible benefits to the participants. I banked too heavily on altruism, and didn't provide an opportunity for participants to increase their own online clout.

Cynical? I would only posit that if I knew differently - and I know Matt has had success with better designed efforts. I don't have a cynical view of people - rather, I have an increasingly dubious opinion of the value of "online influence" and how it equates to actual influence. Again, if your goal is to get retweeted, appealing to online influencers is demonstrably effective. If your goal is to instigate offline action, or even an online trial beyond the simple recapitulation of a message, these ties just might be weaker than we even imagined.

No matter what you think about this particular experience, or experiment, as it were, it's hard to get past this cold, hard fact: almost anything else I could have done, from a radio spot, to a banner ad, to AdWords, probably would have been more effective from an action standpoint. It wasn't just poor, it was really poor.

I tell you this for two reasons: one, don't get caught up in the online influencer hype without asking better questions, and two: to guilt you into going back to this post and recording a message. In the end, that's all I really care about anyway. It may be that your reading this post - and not the myriad tweets from the weekend - will be the catalyst to actually prompt you to do this mitzvah. If that is the case, then despite the crapton of articles to the contrary, blogging is far from dead - and the various measures of online influence out there that essentially ignore the reach, engagement and metrics of blogs run the gamut from irrelevant to delusional.

Do you have numbers to share? What, based upon your experience to the contrary, might I have done differently? The comments are yours.