Using Twitter to understand influence

Influence is a key component of any social media exercise, be it a successful blog or viral video or exciting social marketing campaign. Influencers are the folks you want to be tweeting and blogging about your stuff… ideally on their own. Influencers are the kinetic energy that pushes your message across the social web.

Below are examples drawn from Twitter to help you understand influence and how you can earn it or leverage others’ credibility.

Often we look to Twitter to define who is an influencer. The number of followers one has clearly demonstrates his or her influence, right? Sometimes, yes. Most of the time, probably not. I’ll use my personal Twitter account to explain why. As I write this post, I have 856 followers. The common definition of influence says that I am inflluential to my followers. Easy to draw this connection with a larger-than-average list of followers. But why? I tweet about EMC, of course, but also about current events, pop culture, food, my dogs, the course I teach at UMass and social media, natch. Generally anything I’m interested in. I wouldn’t say I’m influentual, at least to the degree that my tweets will generate the interest a social marketeer would hope for. I know I have followers who retweet my thoughts on EMC or social media or UMass or my dogs. I know that there is some overlap amongst these groups. So as commentator on these various topics, I could be considered influential, but not expert. And certainly not influential enough to instigate widespread tweeting.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into who’s following me. The latest follow is from @HornGroup. I followed them earlier this morning, noting they support communications for IT firms, something I have an interest in. Unless their social manager is Mr. Johnny-on-the-Spot monitoring who follows that account, I can assume fairly confidently that I was automatically followed-back. There is some mutual influence here, as I am a digital marketing professional in the IT industry and @HornGroup is a boutique agency providing that service.

A note on auto-following. Don’t do it. It’s lazy and you’re doing no one any favors by building an artificial following. Looking at my other recent followers, I see an online purveyor of backpacks and a gentleman running for office in New Jersey. I have plenty of backpacks and have never lived (nor plan to live) in New Jersey. My Twitter account was likely followed by bots in the hopes of making a connection with me. I assure you, no connection (or influence) there.

At EMC, we were guilty of once auto-following on our corporate @EMCcorp account. So much so that this summer we peaked at 11,000 folks followed. Many of these tweeps ranged from hair salons to auto repair shops… many folks who likely do not do business with EMC. In fact, our follows were so diverse, the @EMCcorp home feed was of no value whatsoever in surfacing valuable content. Knowing there are dedicated and passionate folks out there, we cleaned out our following, limiting the audience to accounts bearing some relevance (i.e. – influence) on the larger IT discussion. There were over 7,500 unrelated follows removed. Today, our 3,700 follows are comprised of IT publications, customers, partners and other thought leaders contributing useful content to the Twittersphere. We can’t control our following, but we can control whose content we curate and share. Our slimmer group of follows provides a very relevent source of useful content.

Another example comes from @ChrisBrogan. He’s a recognized influencer in digital marketing whose blog currently ranks #2 on AdAge’s Power 150. Chris recently suffered from a spam problem caused by some of the 130,000 Twitter accounts he was following. Rather than sorting through it all to ID the offending follows, Chris unfollowed everyone to start fresh and refocus on his interests. It’s an interesting story, and one to help understand when and why you might follow someone on Twitter and the wonderful conversations that can be had.

It’s all about the context

So, before going forth to listen for potential influencers, consider the context by which you seek to engage. Does that tweep or blogger demonstrate interest in your topic? Has he or she written original content or shared similar content to that which you have written? It’s not enough to look at folks’ follow numbers and decide they are influentual.  Look for follows on the smaller side, say in the hundreds compared to thousands of followers. A small number of follows might also suggest a focused tweet stream. This indictates a tweep is selective about whom he follows, therefore there’s a reasonable expectation he or she might curate targeted and interesting content related to his or her own interests. Someone tweeting about unified storage architecture isn’t necessarily influential, or even interested in, cloud security. Though they ought to be ;-)

The take-away? Consider your source. Ask yourself, “Does this person’s number of follows add value to his Twitter presence?”

“Does this person tweet (or blog) on topics relevant to my interests?”

“Is this person’s audience targeted such that it adds value to the conversation?”

“Is this person likely to retweet my content or write original blog content that aligns with my goals?”

“Is this content focused on a few topics or does it span many?”

If you can answers these questions, you’re well on your way to establishing a engaging connection. If you seek to engage with a particular tweep, understand his audience. Understand the conversations he’s part of. Understand the context of his content. Once you can do (and measure) these things, jump-in and take part in those conversations. Think of the last cocktail or holiday party you attended. Did you walk up to a group of strangers to join their conversation? No. You likely scanned the room to understand the vibe and then introduced yourself to an interesting group.

Provide (and leverage) valuable content. From there will you will begin to understand who the most influential tweeps and bloggers might be for you.