Lessons Learned From an Influencer

Until very recently I wouldn't have called myself an avid social media user. Sure, I created a Facebook profile in 2006, at a time when a college email address was still required to sign up, but who didn't? The concept of the "social network" has changed a great deal since then.

Interestingly, my own sister (and many others like her) even helped catalyze some of that change. At a time when many smaller schools were not yet included in the "network," she personally lobbied Facebook to include her small New England college. Eventually, she succeeded and was able to join the burgeoning center of "online college life."

When I hear that someone of my generation (and even older generations now) doesn't have a Facebook profile at all, I'm genuinely surprised. Although I've had one for years, I only really started using it (and other social media avenues) during a prolonged job hunt. No matter what type of job you're seeking, the process requires that you take on both a sales and marketing role, in that you must market and then eventually sell yourself to potential employers. Luckily for me, I was leaving sales and hoping to get into marketing, so this wasn't an entirely foreign concept.

Eventually I landed a position managing the marketing efforts of a small tech start-up, a role that focused on social media marketing in particular. My time there showed me the pure and dramatic influence social media networks can have. To this point, one experience in particular illustrated just how influential social media -- specifically Twitter -- can be.

The company I worked for created a sports app designed to measure sports perception and intelligence, or "Sports IQ." With an initial version ready for testing, we launched a campaign for the app at the leading sports analytics conference in the country. While there, we recruited several celebrities to test the app, a tactic that led to some great press. Overall, the test version of the app was well received and appeared to be off to a promising start. Our challenge moving forward was to build on this, hoping to stay relevant until the official app would debut in the App Store.

To this end, we solicited people to sign up for an early-access download of the app once it was ready. We soon found out that this was much easier said than done, so we decided to then reach out to an influential friend of the company to help increase sign-ups. My CEO mentioned that this person -- a trainer, personal coach, and general sports enthusiast, had become friendly with the company over time as he and several of our employees often attended the same rotation of national clinics, tournaments, and trade shows.

Therefore we arranged an unofficial partnership with this influencer -- he would urge his Twitter followers to check out our app and in exchange we would determine some compensation based on the initial response. Within hours of spreading the word via his social media channels, we had hundred of downloads, rivaling the result of all of our combined efforts up until that point. Within days, we had several thousand.

What's important to note is not the sheer number of downloads he helped drive, but rather how he overcame the exact same challenge we had faced: not having any actual product to let users try before signing up (and thus committing their private e-mail addresses). His solution was simple-- influence.

In the context of Twitter and social media in general, this coach exemplifies what it means to be an "influencer." These are the people whom companies will pay exorbitant fees to promote their products, brands, and causes. Malcolm Gladwell famously discussed them in detail in his hit book The Tipping Point and in doing so, turned them into a mini-phenomenon, as described here by Brandon Evans in his take on what "influencer theory" has missed.

Evans's piece mostly focuses on the company Klout, which preys on this "influencer hype" and builds the ego of those folks deemed "influential" by assigning them high "influencer scores." On the flip side, it leaves non-influencers questioning the validity of Klout's highly secretive and proprietary algorithm that derives these scores. In the past this algorithm has certainly not proven to be infallible, as at one point when it changed, many scores changed along with it, some for the better and others for the worse.

This influential friend of my former company (who unsurprisingly has a high Klout score -- 70) had achieved some level of influence before social media, but by no means was he a celebrity who could've signed up for Twitter and gained an abundance of dedicated followers overnight (think of Warren Buffet, who after just joining Twitter recently, apparently gained "thousands of followers by the minute"). He conveyed to me the story of slowly building up his followers "brick by brick," over a relatively lengthy period of time.

Furthermore, he described how he had carved out his "niche," and explained that if I wanted to develop any traction on Twitter, I'd need to do the same. People turned to him for advice on basketball skills, strength and conditioning drills, and nutrition tips. In his process, he developed what you might call "relationships" with many of these followers, surely some more substantial than others, but all of them containing the crucial element of trust.

These individuals downloaded an app about which many of them probably knew next to nothing, though they knew that an individual, whom they respected, especially in sports-related matters, had endorsed it. In the end, the greatest value in his nearly 45,000 followers comes not just from the social reach they provide him, but also from their willingness to trust his word and follow his recommendations. After seeing how powerful Twitter can be, I've devoted some of my own time recently towards carving out my own Twitter niche. And for those who may still think it's a waste of time, just think about Warren Buffet, who didn't build his business on Twitter, but who has finally decided that it's worth HIS time.