What is Influence, Really? – No Carrot, No Stick, No Annoyance, No Trick
From the lack of response and low kudos on my last post, I get the impression that you probably had enough big data for the time being. Since I’ve decided to rotate more frequently between different projects that I’m working on, I feel this is a good time to revisit the topic of influence and pick up where I left off on this fascinating subject.
It’s been more than two years since I wrote about influence. You can find my chapter plus miscellaneous articles on influence via the label under “influencers”. I didn’t lose interest in this subject – the simple fact is empirical research takes a lot of time, much more than qualitative research. I also conduct research in many areas besides digital influence. If you’d like a quick recap of my earlier work, this video interview by MyCustomer.com covers the essence of what I did.
Today, I’d like to continue the discussion about influence and look deeper into what influence really means.
What is Influence? The Simplistic View
Despite the amount of discussion around influence on the web, I find that people have a general notion of what influence is, but can’t define it precisely. So let me start with two relevant definitions from the Webster’s dictionary. Influence is:
- The act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command
- The power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways : sway
From these definitions, it is clear that influence is something that must have some effects on something else. The question is what those “effects” are, and what that “something else” is. For business and social media, that “something” is almost always going to be a person, or a group of people. We will refer to these people as the “influencees”.
The effects, on the other hand, can be a change in thought (i.e. sentiment, opinion, attitude, etc.) or it could be an action (i.e. purchase, referral, behavior change, such as loyalty, etc.). I must draw your attention to the disjunctive “or,” because contrary to popular belief, influence does NOT always have to produce an action. If you’ve convinced me (an Apple fan) that an Android phone is better than an iPhone, you have successfully influenced me, because you have changed my mind. Even though I haven’t taken any action yet, influence still occurred. Although that is not the most valuable form of influence, it is influence none the less. As far as influence is concern, it is sufficient to simply cause a change in someone’s thoughts.
So it seems that influence is just the ability to cause a change in thought OR action. Simple! But this definition is insufficient and incomplete.
The End Does NOT Justify the Means
The reason that the simplistic definition is incomplete is because it does matter how you cause those changes, whether it’s in thought or action. The Webster definitions also state there should be no force or exercise of command, and the effects (i.e. the changes in thought or action) must be caused through “indirect or intangible ways.” What does this mean? Simply put, when it comes to influence, the end does not justify the means.
It is actually relatively easy to cause a change in someone’s thought and/or behavior, because there are many different ways one can do this. The following is not an exhaustive list, but it covers some of the most common categories of method to change someone’s mind and/or actions:
- Carrot: paying the influencees, bribery, quid pro quo, etc.
- Stick: force, coercion, command, control, fear, etc.
- Annoyance: spamming, link bating, frustration etc. (e.g. Social Fame, Social Shame, and the Accounting of a Game)
- Tricks: deception, hidden agenda, any means that are not completely transparent, etc.
However, none of these constitute real influence. Certainly, if you threaten someone at gunpoint, you can easily change his mind and behavior, but that’s not influence. You can also pay someone to do something; that will certainly change his actions, but that’s not influence either.
As you can see, it is much harder to truly influence someone. Because influence really is “the ability to cause a change in thought OR behavior through non-coercive and transparent means where the influencees voluntarily want the changes even without monetary compensation.”
Applying the Definition
Now we have a definition for influence, let’s see if we can apply it to clarify some confusion. If you ever work on any influence model or influence scoring algorithms, you probably have thought about this question: should the number of follower on twitter contribute to one’s influence? Some of you may say nope, absolutely not, yet some of you may challenge why not.
The answer is it really depends. Again, the key is HOW you get people to follow you. If you pay people to follow you, that is definitely not influence. That is called a bribe. In fact, if you use carrot, stick, annoyance, or tricks to get followers, then it is by definition not influence. However, if you acquire your follower by produce great content and tweeting informative news, then that would be a valid form of influence.
Although twitter users have become savvier today, most users will still follow you back blindly as a quid pro quo to your initial following. As we discussed earlier, this quid pro quo behavior is not influence, because people can easily game the system by simply following random strangers all day long. They would accumulate followers due to this quid pro quo following behavior, even though they haven’t done anything worthy of any influence. Therefore follower count shouldn’t be used in any way to measure someone’s influence, at least not now!
So influence is NOT just the ability to cause a change in thought or action, because it matters how you cause the change. We must extend this simplistic definition to include the valid means of causing a change.
In short, my definition of influence is: the ability to cause a change in thought OR behavior under the following four conditions:
- No carrot – means that do not involve monetary compensation
- No stick – means that are non-coercive
- No annoyance – means that are voluntary
- No tricks – means that are completely transparent
Alright, now that we have a definition, I hope everyone can be on the same page when we talk about influence and what it entails.
Meanwhile, let me know if you like me to continue writing about influence by either commenting or giving me a kudo. In the future, I will use the number of comments and kudos I received to gauge how frequently I should rotate between various subjects that I’m researching. Stay tuned and see you next time...
Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Chief Scientist. His research includes: deriving insights from big data, understanding the behavioral economics of gamification, engaging + finding true social media influencers, developing predictive + actionable social analytics algorithms, social CRM, and using cyber anthropology + social network analysis to unravel the collective dynamics of communities + social networks.
Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics + its application to Social CRM. He's a blogger on Lithosphere, and you can follow him @mich8elwu or Google+.
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