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1 posts from September 2009

September 30, 2009

The Influence Equation


“You don't have to be a "person of influence" to be influential. In fact, the most influential people in my life are probably not even aware of the things they've taught me.”

– Scott Adams, “Dilbert” series cartoonist

At the gut level, we know that influence is important, whether it is for creating individual personal social capital to impact discussions and decisions, or brands looking for ways to convert influence into cash.

Who or what influences our perceptions and decisions? Is it our family, work colleagues, a blogger with 100,000 RSS subscribers, someone on the Twitter SUL with a million followers, brands like Nike or Apple, a charismatic politician, or mainstream media personalities such as Oprah and John Stewart?

How is that opportunity to influence earned?  What elements or behaviors make up the “Influence Equation?”  Might the relevant mix of trust, expertise and attention (TEA) come together to define “contextual specific engagement” which provides the opportunity (but not the guarantee) for a receptive and relevant “audience”,  as well as the appropriately timed moments of influence? (Meaning that influence is defined for both individuals/groups, as well as time).


In a previous post, “This Year It’s all About Trust,” trust was examined in great depth and dissected into the components of Ability (knowledge) + Integrity (alignment of word and deed) + Benevolence (open communication).  From that post:

“Trust is a statement of faith about what is otherwise unknown
because it is currently unverifiable or the results exist in the future.
Because of that, it is a powerful attribute for an individual or a
brand, and a prerequisite for real “credibility” … it is the currency
that enables … attention acquisition in a time starved world.”

While there is no one universal Web-based trust metric, there are measurable actions that imply trust depending on the context in which one wants to measure.

“From traditional media sites to niche blogs, from Twitter and
Digg, to Facebook and MySpace, consumers are engaging with
online content - and each other - in totally different ways from in
the offline world. Friending someone on Facebook, linking to or
leaving comments on someone's post, blog-rolling a trusted blog,
adding a story to your social bookmarking service of choice - these
are implicit actions that communicate trust. It is safe to say that
the ability to use the web to aggregate and analyze these collective
activities would paint a very powerful picture of both who and
what influences a particular consumer. And this is marketing gold.”
– Todd Parsons, co-founder, BuzzLogic
(more here)


Trust and expertise aren’t always a part of the same package, but they are both required components of the “Influence Equation.”  When the two are combined, credibility or believability results – at least in the eye of the beholder (per B.J. Fogg  in “Persuasive Technology.”)

What is expertise? Fogg defines it as “the perceived knowledge, skill and experience of the source", and others have added in the dimension “contextual knowledge in ill structured situations.”

Experts are different than novices in that novices must usually rely on a set of fixed rules or processes applied in very specific (narrow) situations. Individuals (experts) with expertise earned and demonstrated over time are much more flexible than novices in that they have accumulated contextual experience (beyond the novice’s rules) that can be applied as strategies “automatically” in complex, ill-structured situations. For experts, intuition becomes as important as domain-specific knowledge.

The value that can be derived from expertise within the “Influence Equation” is well articulated in Brian Solis’ post “Unveiling the New Influencers”:

“Those who master their domains are developing persuasive and
important communities around their areas of expertise, interests and
passions and now possess the prowess and authority to direct,
instruct, and steer decision makers and referrers.”

While there is not yet a good industry wide measure for “expertise” (we seem to know it when we see it), it should not be confused with “authority” as many bloggers do when they use the Technorati index to benchmark authority ranking.  Several good blog posts address this, including katrinah.com, Beth's Blog, and Brian Solis in a TechCrunch post.


Attention is a scarce and valuable resource in a data-packed 24-hour world, making it no small task to ask people to gift some of their time. As Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon (1971) said: "...a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention..."

Chris Andersen said in his book “Free”:
“The value of attention and reputation is clearly something, or companies
 wouldn’t spend so much on advertising to influence them. We set prices
on attention every day: the cost to reach a thousand radio listeners for
30 seconds, the charge for forcing a million Super Bowl viewers to interrupt
their game. And every time a movie star’s agent negotiates a film deal, a
reputation is being valued.  … But there’s a lot more attention and reputation
in the world than that measured in media and celebrity.  The problem is that
we don’t have any idea of how much more."

So is trying to get people you don’t personally know, to do something you want them to do (but they may not yet know they have interest in), fundamentally arrogant? When considering the concept of acquiring attention, earning vs. asking might be the better model, and doing so in a “humble” manner over time might be a good idea. 

So what is attention and how do you earn and build it?

The “What” of Attention: Attention is ultimately about the connection between people and ideas, and it may well be considered a “flow” or a continuous collection of moments (vs. an individual or discreet thing).  This would indicate that in order to “keep attention” one must continue to do new things (Meaning one can’t take attention for granted). There are also different kinds or levels of attention that should have different values attached to them under different circumstances and contexts – ranging from “full and undivided attention” to “continuous partial attention” as coined by Linda Stone. (more here).

The “Earn and Build” of Attention: Bill Wasik, the author of “And Then There’s This” and a senior editor at Harpers Magazine who coined the term “Flash Mob” has some interesting perspectives on this topic in a video worth watching.The high level bits regarding attention building:
  • reliably create stuff that gets attention over time,
  • understand the role of the feedback loop (criticism) in the development of attention,
  • see attention as a volume commitment vs. a one-off undertaking

The “Where and How Much” of Attention:
A recent HP Labs study suggests that, when measuring influence, it’s important to identify the “hidden social networks” or the “where and how much” of attention. In the network. the number of followers/friends that a person has is meaningless if there is little or no interaction. What matters are the exchanges (and attention given in those exchanges) that take place between the individuals and their circle of “real engaged friends” in the network .

Given these frameworks, from a measurement perspective, it is clear that attention is NOT a commodity good, and that there is no such thing as a “standard unit of attention.”  At this time, there is no standard attention metric.  The soft metric has to be framed within the context of the specific audience, type of attention given, and subject area.

Regardless of how difficult it is to measure in definite terms, understanding at least relative changes in attention is critical to both individuals and brands.  Regarding the importance of attention to brands, Scott Karp wrote:

 “In media 1.0, brands paid for the attention that media companies gathered by
offering people news and entertainment (e.g. TV) in exchange for their attention.
In media 2.0, people are more likely to give their attention in exchange for

Regarding the importance of attention to individuals and making a strong link back to our earlier discussion on “expertise,” John Hagel wrote:

“We all find ourselves in a globalizing world where we must find ways to develop
 distinctive and rapidly evolving capabilities (Liz – what I called “expertise in this
post) … We all need to find ways to tap into a broader set of experiences and
perspectives to refresh our understanding of the changing world around us. To
do this effectively, we need to receive the deep and sustained attention of those
who have the most to offer and we cannot do this unless we can offer compelling
value in return. If we cannot build deep and sustaining networks of attention (in
other words, networks of relationships), we will find it more and more difficult to
remain relevant and productive…we risk becoming progressively marginalized. 
Receiving attention becomes far more important than it ever was and will require
far more effort than in the past.”


Influence can be defined as “the potential of an action of one individual/user to initiate a further action by another.”  That further action may be the bestowing of social capital or an exchange of real monetary capital. The opportunity for that influence to exist is the result (over time) of the development of deep Trust, the demonstration of appropriate Expertise, and the ability to garner some form of Attention flow. And that Engagement-Influence is specific to the context, community (collection or an individual), and content (area of expertise).

With shifts in the media landscape away from a purely professionally created world to one in which user generated and user-commented (of professional) is added - it’s no wonder that both individuals and businesses are experimenting with and trying to understand how to use the Web in a very human way to build reputation, awareness and influence.  And beyond that, where appropriate, to find a way to translate that engagement-influence equation into some kind of business value.

The question remains: Is there an engagement -influencer metric or set of metrics that reflects this model of Trust-Expertise-Attention (TEA); something that is beyond old school reach and penetration?  That is what companies such as BuzzLogic and ShareThis are betting on.  And that’s all food for a future post that moves past this philosophical framing and into the search for real (and useful) numbers and maps. Egv_tiny_blogicon


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Liz Gebhardt

  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.