From Chapter 6: Personal Influence – The Marketer’s Holy Grail
The Social Algorithm
Algorithms—repeatable computer code used to solve complicated problems—are at the heart of much decision making in the marketing world today. Combined with ever-expanding databases of personal information collected through the social web and astonishingly fast computation speeds, these powerful snippets of code can predict the types of movies you like to watch, the soft drink you are most likely to order with your popcorn, and even whether you will like a specific movie.
At first these algorithms were used to do simple tasks such as identifying the most loyal and profitable customers. However, that all changed with the pioneering work of Bob Gerstley, considered by some to be the father of social algorithms.
Gerstley started with a simple question: Can software identify the most influential person in a network? Gerstley’s research combined social networking activities, group memberships, leadership roles, published content, and other criteria into a single mathematical calculation. That algorithm, when applied to a group of people in a database, would result in a numerical ranking called the Social Networking Potential (SNP).With SNP in hand, companies could quickly zero in on the VIPs in their databases. Mobile phone providers were the first to apply Gertsley’s work since they had a massive trove of data culled from phone call records.
The ability to dissect and assess billions of pieces of data instantaneously and cost-effectively to find online influencers is a natural progression of a system that had its roots in the earliest marketplaces in the world, celebrity endorsements, the JELL-O viral approach to marketing, and Mary Kay Ash. It seems inevitable, doesn’t it—Q scores and E scores for every person on the planet!
Azeem Azhar, the founder of London’s PeerIndex social scoring system, was a pioneer of this concept of distilling massive amounts of data into usable characterizations of everyday influence. Azhar, who describes himself as “a geek at heart,” had already established a reputation as a respected British technology journalist when he began to dabble in start-ups.
“As far back as the early 2000s, I was thinking about this idea of measuring online influence,” he said. “At the time I ran a blogging platform, and I was always wondering about how we could turn it into a more powerful media platform by harnessing the influence or impact of the people who were writing their posts,” he said. “We were heading in the right direction with that idea, but we were a little ahead of our time in terms of the capability of technology.
“The kindling for PeerIndex began to burn during the financial crisis. Around 2008 I realized that I was getting an increasing amount of my news from Twitter, maybe even more than from The Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal. It was happening because I was connecting to smart people I trusted, people who were curating content that was very relevant to me.
“So we sat around our office, thinking about all the intelligence out there! We thought that we should find a way to discover these experts and elevate those experts without having to go through the old channels.”
Algorithms Elevate the Citizen Influencer
“The old channels of creating influence were quite clear . . . and dysfunctional,” Azhar said. “In order to have impact, you needed to go to the right university . . . check that box . . . get a job with the right newspaper or investment bank . . . check that box . . . and guess what? Now you have influence.
“But actually, it’s not influence; it’s hurdle jumping. You’re jumping the hurdles of your SAT, your GRE or GMAT, or other entrance exams. You’re jumping the hurdle of the late-night drink with the city editor of the local paper or investment banker who you’re hoping is going to recruit you. That was the old way to get ahead and get noticed.
“But we found some really smart people hanging around in this social space with no clear metric to distinguish who you should trust and on what subject. So that’s what PeerIndex became. That was the vision.
“We knew that within the data on the social web there were some really clear indications of people’s tendencies and behaviors,” he continued. “There were patterns that would indicate the topics that they really cared about and maybe even some indicators of influence on certain topics.
“A powerful analogy for this is the personal credit rating. In that case, a corporate entity looks at all of the previous activity for a person going back 5 or 10 years and sums it up in a single number. A smart loan officer will dig through the details to make the best assessment, but if you need a quick decision, that single number will probably work.
“We realized when developing the PeerIndex application that it’s kind of meaningless to say someone is a 48 without knowing what it means. You could be a 48 on average but 76 in the field of education, which means you are trusted, respected, and care about education more than most other people. But that same person could also be a 22 on the topic of baseball, which means he’s kind of a hobbyist. So if you break it down like that, the numbers begin to have real meaning.”
The implication of this development is that if a company wants to identify influencers relevant to its brands and products easily, a list can be assembled that it knows with some confidence will represent passionate, knowledgeable, and maybe even respected influencers at nearly every level of society.
“The idea of using influence in business has come a long way, but we are just at the beginning of understanding and measuring this science of influence,” Azhar explained.
Becoming a Person of Influence
I’m living proof of that technological step forward.
I recently received an invitation to speak at a prestigious government conference and influence 700 people in real life because of one popular blog post I had written.
Another blog post I wrote showed up in the search results of a New York Times reporter who was researching a social media topic: social scoring. She interviewed me, and the article appeared in the Sunday edition of my favorite newspaper. The article—with my name in it—was picked up by newspapers around the world, including the Daily Mail in London.
Consulting work for the British government, my teaching position at Rutgers University, and even the opportunity to write this book came through connections in my social media network inspired by my content.
None of this could have happened 10 years ago. Without the social web reaching critical mass, I’d probably be toiling in obscurity in a cubicle somewhere. This is my time to be a person of influence. This is your time to be a person of influence. And corporate America can’t wait to find you and reward you, just as it did with Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe and Bill Cosby. Well, sort of. To understand the new world of citizen influence, it would make a lot of sense to learn a little about the company at the middle of all of this, Klout.
So let’s do that.