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Proof that Influence Is Real

By Magnificent Publications, Inc.

As marketers have turned their attention more and more to social media, they have become increasingly interested in how people influence their peers. Specifically, they have begun looking for so-called “influencers”—early adopters who spread ideas to the rest of their social circles—so they can speak directly to them. The idea is that if you can convert people who already have an audience, you get to address their audiences as well.

Whole businesses (most famously Klout) have sprung up around this concept.

Yet for a long time it hasn’t actually been clear that influencers are the most important part of the social influence story. As NYU’s Sinan Aral explains, it could be that people who are susceptible to being influenced are the more important half of the equation. In other words, maybe “influencers” aren’t special. They only look special because they happen to be surrounded by people who readily adopt new ideas. Also, people tend to be friends in real life and online with others who are similar to them, with similar tastes and interests. If my friend “likes” a TV show on Facebook and then I do too, am I doing it because I was influenced by my friend or because we have the same tastes?

These may seem like academic distinctions, but they have real-world consequences for marketers. If influencers really do hold sway over their peers, then it makes a lot of sense to put resources behind identifying them and trying to get them to spread peer-to-peer messages. If their influence is just a coincidence, then it makes more sense to speak to whole groups in the hopes of catching any one person’s ear.

Research from Aral and his colleague Dylan Walker has managed to filter out a lot of the coincidences and friendship biases, and in a paper published in Science they confirm that influence is real—and so is susceptibility. That is, not only are there people who heavily influence their friends, there are other people who are heavily influenced by their friends. How much one person can spread a message (in this case, they tracked the adoption of a commercial movie application on Facebook) depends in part on her own influence, and in part on how susceptible her friends are.

In general, they found that:

  • Younger users are more susceptible than older users.
  • Men are more influential than women.
  • Women influence men more than they influence other women.
  •  Single people are less susceptible to influence than people in a relationship, who are in turn less susceptible than people who are engaged—but married individuals are the least susceptible of all.
  •  Influential individuals are less susceptible to influence than non-influential individuals, and vice versa.
  •  Some highly influential people are themselves connected to other strong influencers, which gives them the potential to be “super-spreaders.” Of course this might never happen because being a strong influencer makes you less susceptible to influence.

Because influencers tend not to be susceptible, they are less likely to respond to a broadcast-type message, but converting them should yield extra benefits. So marketers should, indeed, target influencers and cultivate them carefully.

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