Chasing Social Reach: Want to Play Follow the Leader?

6 minute read
Scott K. Wilder avatar

“Get me as many followers as possible … and get them soon”

I hear that request often.

Unfortunately, having a lot of Twitter “followers” or getting many “likes” on Facebook is not a good proxy for influence. And influence is probably more important than popularity.  

As Rogers pointed out in his classic Diffusion of Innovations, influencers persuade others, so it’s important to target influencers in large scale networks.

These days, people focus less on the popularity of a person. Instead, they focus on the interpersonal relationships among a specific tribe and then the willingness and readiness of the group to use a newproduct or technology. They also focus on the ability of that person to provide useful information. Influence is less about size and more about about relevancy, specificity and expertise on a certain topic.

The Million Followers Fallacy

Adi Avnit coined the term: The Million Followers Fallacy, which states that the number of Twitter followers is largely meaningless. After looking at data from all 52 million Twitter accounts (and, more closely, at the 6 million “active users”), Meeyoung Cha from the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems confirmed Avnit’s theory, stating, “Popular users who have a high indegree [number of followers] are not necessarily influential in terms of spawning retweets or mentions”

Followers Always Don’t Make True Groupies

There are a number of reasons why followers don’t represent how much influence a person has.

  • Following says more about popularity (size of audience) and less about a person’s ability to influence a user or sway the opinions of her followers.
  • Followers conflate repetition with understanding, i.e. if we beat a message into people’s heads through repetition, they will understand our message.
  • “Follower Fraud” (where people get paid to build accounts and follow someone) is rampant.
  • Many people click “follow” and never interact with that person again (I am certainly guilty of this).

Unfortunately, small and large businesses often prioritize the goal of getting as many followers as possible. They believe that if a person has a lot of followers, they must be able to sway the crowd. Or at least be worthy of a gold star.

The people who study what makes someone influential, however, understand that this is not a good proxy and that popularity does not equal influence. They also know there is no consensus on how to measure influence.

Followers Are Just Cold Leads


It is probably better to think of followers as being part of the "lead funnel." But in most cases, these are just cold leads, meaning you need to either offer them something, such as a coupon or discount. In other words, get them to raise both hands instead of just one.

Facebook Offer: “Pay to Reach Your Followers”

With Facebook Promote Post program, marketers will need to manage the lead generation process better. According to the Wall Street Journal, ”Under a program rolled out in May, businesses pay Facebook Inc. anywhere from $5 to hundreds of dollars to promote a post to the news feeds of users who have “liked” their page, plus Facebook friends of those users.” (This number really surprised me. I now need to recalculate my Facebook related cost per lead numbers).

HubSpot reports that only 6 percent of fans engage with a Facebook brand’s page and that Facebook posts obtain 50 percent of their reach in the first 30 minutes of being posted and it's all downhill from there.

Companies, therefore, need to develop their own algorithm to define the quality or usefulness of their content. When it comes to Twitter, this process is still fairly simple with marketers using "past local influence" (mentions, retweets, etc.) as a predictor of future influence.

This presents a great opportunity for data scientists to:

Learning Opportunities

  • Experiment with how information spreads in a single network and from Network to Network
  • Develop algorithms (or better proxies) to determine influence.

Language, Rituals and Leaders

True influence is based on the relevancy of a conversation (post, article) to a specific audience or tribe. Each tribe has their own language (nomenclature), their own rituals (attending Burning Man), and their own leaders.

Among Data Scientists for example, can we identify who has the most influence? And does that influence change across different channels and networks? It probably does.

Spreading valuable information across a network is a challenge. As such, companies usually make the mistake of defining influence as a user who has the most followers or the most page views.

In Silicon Valley, this leads to every corporate marker (and their mothers, fathers, siblings …) reaching out to the editors’ most trafficked technology sites. If I am selling big data tools, for example, these two publications will not help me sell my products as much as identify relevant data scientists or data analysts, the people who have subject matter expertise.

Relevant Influencers More Important that Popular Influencers

In their important paper, "Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter," authors Watts, Hoffman, Bakshy and Mason find,

although under some circumstances, the most influential users are also the most cost-effective, under a wide range of plausible assumptions the most cost-effective performance can be realized using ‘ordinary influencers’ or individuals who exert average or even less-than-average influence.”

The paper also highlighted that word-of-mouth information spreads via many small cascades, mostly triggered by ordinary individuals, and this is also likely to apply generally, as has been suggested elsewhere. Marketers need to go beyond the raw number of followers and identify potential relevant influencers, e.g., those who speak with some authority on a topic and have consistent engagement from their fans.

And just to throw in a curve ball: a person’s influence can differ among channels and networks, so it’s important to measure that as well as the actions their content is influencing. I read a post from a data scientist’s blog, for example, and then signed up for a webinar to get the real skinny.

When it comes to online communities or social networks, a person’s influence comes down to their ability to provide useful answers and information. Hurricane Sandy provides a great example of this. Using the hashtag, “Disaster,” some individuals provided tips on how to survive (where to find food and shelter, etc.) while others (even individuals with a lot of followers) posted jokes and sarcastic comments in the communication stream.

Title image courtesy of BlueOrange Studio (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Interested in more of Scott's thoughts on Social Media? Read Don't Learn Social Media on the Fly