What Do The Emperor's New Clothes Have in Common with Social Media Influence?

Remember the childhood story of "The Emperor's New Clothes"? The Hans Christian Andersen short tale tells of two weavers who promise to make the Emperor a wonderful new suit of clothes. The catch is that these clothes will be invisible to those who are stupid, incompetent or unfit. Even though the Emperor and his ministers can't see the clothes, they don't want to appear stupid. So the Emperor parades in front of his subjects who all admire his "clothes" until a young child points out that he really isn't wearing anything at all.

That's how it seems lately when it comes to the topic of social media influence. In a recent blog, I explained how what's being called "influence" today is just a modern cloth for "awareness". The big question is how can the interconnectivity of social media (as opposed to the one-way communication of other media) go beyond awareness building to capture non-predisposed, new audiences?

Anthropologically speaking, we know that networking enables us to extend reach within our "tribe", but how can social media influence and convince the non-committed? That's the power to sway, behavioral change (not just building awareness) and the real subject of influence.

Now some others are putting Emperor's New Clothes again and suggesting that Klout, Kred, PeerIndex and its peers really measures a person's capacity to create buzz. Klout and Kred for example, only measure the total passes of all content. Buzz is a major topic of information, exponentially spread - none of these services are measuring the specifics of individual messages but total content. Just because someone retweets or likes something, does not mean it has taken off into a contagion in society and we are all buzzing about it. There is absolutely no indication whatsoever that retweets, likes, shares and tweets are creating a mindset of "I must buy this".

A person who tweets or likes more than a 100 or 200 times a day about a comparable number of issues is unlikely causing reaction about any issue. He may be generating a lot of activity, but little if anything has changed at all.

Even the latest studies that try to determine if Facebook users can be influential in any way, have experienced limited results. In June New Scientist published an article titled, "Facebook Study Reveals What Makes Someone a Leader." This was a brief summary of a paper by New York University colleagues Sinan Aral and Dylan Walker, "Identifying Influential and Susceptible Members of Social Networks," which was published by Science Magazine.

In their research Aral and Walker tried to study influence by watching the online spread of a film-rating app. They started with 7730 Facebook users and designed an app to send messages to their friends, encouraging them to install the app as well. About 42,000 messages were sent to randomly chosen targets among the initial group's 1.3 million friends. The result of under 1000 new users for the app may sound heartening to some marketers, but this modest 13% growth from the original adopters needs to be carefully considered as to whether it is true behavioral change or not. The researchers themselves put the caveat that "it is still not clear whether influence and susceptibility are generalized characteristics of individuals or instead depend on which product, behavior, or idea is diffusing."

Even though this has been hailed as one of the most ambitious efforts to measure influence, it is important to point out, the research was conducted regarding a movie-rating app, which is an entirely different social phenomenon than making a product or brand recommendation.

Historically, movies have always grown by word-of-mouth so there is nothing in this research which supports a claim that social media influence behaves in any way different than any other communication from a peer. In fact, it is rather surprising that results were only 13% growth from initial users and just 2% of total messages sent (2% is the industry standard for a successful direct response mail campaign, for example).

The researchers further say, "recipient selection and message content may be important aspects of influence and should therefore be estimated in future experiments." In other words, influence may have as much to do with the susceptibility of the receiver and the message being sent as the sender of the message. So as far as measures of influence being more than anything but spreading awareness today, I don't see it.

It's common knowledge that people are social animals who want to belong. In any given group or tribe, there are always those who are more communicative than others. If you see that certain members of your group like a particular film, you are more likely to go see it because it gives you a sense of belonging and something to talk about with your friends. Belonging to the tribe is your reward. That is how culture and tribes work.

But when it comes to brand marketing, the sense of reward is very different. People don't necessarily have to use the same products to belong to the tribe. This might be somewhat true with electronic gadgets or status objects, but our tribe really doesn't care which brand of detergent we use. This takes us back to the importance of definition, depth and real meaning, which are not being brought into discussions about influence. Deciding to see a movie is entirely different than changing a real, ingrained behavior. We may have new language, but communication continues to work the way it always did. We pay attention to like-minded people and follow them on cultural matters.

Facebook liking in particular doesn't seem to relate to action at all. Keith Sentis, Managing Director of Pathfinder Strategies explains "I expect that the "Like" button in Facebook is a catch-all response to a variety of reactions to the topic. These reactions can include "I strongly endorse the sentiment represented by the topic", "I am mildly amused in an otherwise monotonous day", "I would agree more or less", "I love this", "I find this interesting". These reactions can be arrayed in a two dimensional space. The first dimension is a continuum anchored at one end by "hot", affective, emotional responses and anchored at the other end by "cold", cognitive, rational responses. The other dimension is magnitude or power or forcefulness of the response - from miniscule to extreme. We know that powerful, affective responses are, in general, more highly related to action. The trouble is, of course, that the LIKE score in Facebook jumbles up responses from across all areas in this two dimensional space and therefore is unlikely to be predictive of action."

Buzz and awareness are not the new clothes when it comes to influence. Until someone can track the true behavior change that an influencer causes by a message, it is virtually the Emperor's New Clothes all over again but until then, "he really doesn't have anything on at all," does he?