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A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.

..and yet the above quote from Frank Herbert is exactly what many people ignore when trying to understand who is influential on any given topic. Conversations are not fixed points in time but are dynamic and agile with different participants contributing throughout.

Why This is Important?

If people are trying to influence a conversation to ensure their message resonates throughout their target audience it is essential that they target the right people, at the right time in the right manner. Too often people only focus on who are the right people but haven’t access to the right tools to help with the later areas.

Working in tandem with Ramine Tinati from the the University of Southampton, we analysed multiple conversations via a unique tool called TweetFlow for common trends. The results were astounding and has directly impacted the way I work.

In previous discussions, I have explained how:

influence is defined by how information flows in a conversation

As part of this, much of the focus has been on two of the primary personas within the topology of influence. The idea starter and the amplifier – however, what I have only recently realised in my own Eureka moment is that a forgotten but critical player is the curator needs to be engaged with. This person, often overlooked due to their relatively low popularity has proven to be a significant driver of influence.

When analysing the three types below, it is clear to see that as marketers we must adopt both technology tools and sociological profiling to help us interact with people. Idea starters start early in great detail but often do not engage when the conversation reaches maturity and amplifiers publish and move on. If we were to engage with these two types when a conversation has been established in the market for some time because we rightly understood that these two people were instrumental in making this happen, then we would be wasting our effort. Instead it is the local expert who maintains the conversation and enables it to grow.

Maturity of Conversation Flow via Influence

Taking the Gartner hype cycle concept, I have adapted this to the growing maturity of a conversation topic. As marketers, we need to identify at what stage of a conversation we are engaging in, so that we in turn can ensure that our limited time and focus is spent concentrating on the right people who have the greatest chance of influencing others.

Stage 1: Conversation Trigger

Regression analysis of conversations often point to a few individuals who initiate the concept. These ‘idea starters’ often collaborate with curators to refine the concept and amplifiers to help publicize their thoughts. Engagement with the idea starter via collaborative discussion holds the greatest opportunity to influence the conversation.

Key influencer: Idea Starter

Preferred Engagement Behaviour: Collaborative discussion

Stage 2: Peak of Concurrent Conversations

When an ‘amplifier’ becomes interested in a conversation, it has the opportunity to reverberate around communities. With a large audience, an amplifier’s voice is disproportionately loud and for this reason has often been the target of many influence campaigns. Engagement with group has the greatest chance of success provided a relationship exists. However, this opportunity is often extremely hard to achieve and hence marketers have instead opted for influencing the influencers of this group (i.e. idea starters) or using paid methods (e.g. advertorials). Nevertheless, what cannot be doubted is that when an amplifier publicises content, it generates a huge volume of conversation.

Key influencer: Amplifier

Preferred Engagement Behaviour: Pre-packaged content that is easy to reproduce

 

Stage 3: Trough of Early Adoption

As any blogger will tell you, after the initial excitement of a meme, there comes a quick and sudden lull in conversation volume. What is most apparent is that the early catalysts for discussions no longer actively participate in the conversation. This is a crucial stage as it is here where the traditional key influencers of idea starters and amplifiers make way for the curator. Curators are the niche experts who are known within their circle as the go-to-person about a niche area. They may not have a huge number of followers but they maintain the conversation when others have left.

Key influencer: Curator

Preferred Engagement Behaviour: Q&A, scenario discussion

 

Stage 4: Slope of Enlightenment

For an idea to manifest, it takes time and evidence-based discussion to prove that it is an idea worth following. It is at this stage that once again we see the curator as being a focal point in idea adoption.

 

Stage 5: Plateau of Mainstream Adoption

You may never get as high a degree of volume of discussion as with the Peak of Concurrent Conversations but it is at this final stage where key commentators are dominating the conversation. Adoption of the idea is widespread with the initial idea starter and amplifier having progressed to other areas some time ago.

 

Proof of Theory – TweetFlow

In this video created with TweetFlow, you can see how idea starters start early in the conversation, amplifiers give it mass growth but it is the curators who make it last.

TweetFlow–created in partnership between Jonny Bentwood (Edelman) and Ramine Tinati (University of Southampton)

 

The Topology of Influence in Detail – idea starter, amplifier, curator, commentator and viewer

Idea Starters – this small collective of people are the creative brains behind many of the thoughts and ideas that other people talk about. Even though they may not necessarily have a large audience themselves, their insightful opinions often flow and are repeated throughout conversations long after they have left. They are typically well connected to other idea starters (where they collaborate on thoughts) and amplifiers (who they often rely upon to spread their views). Idea starters tend to be well connected to curators and amplifiers.

Amplifiers – these people frequently have a large audience and following. Their expertise may be deep but often they rely upon other contacts to provide opinion to which they then let their readership know about. They often have professional or commercial motivations such as journalists or analysts but are also more often than not self-created experts and avid sharers of information. Their advantage and their burden is their huge number of followers they need to keep satisfied. This behaviour ensures that they need to receive pre-packaged content that they can easily repost, retweet or repurpose so that their audience does not diminish. Amplifiers are frequently well connected to idea starters as the source of their content.

Curators – this group though having a far smaller audience are perhaps one of the most influential groups. Long after the idea starter and amplifier have left a conversation, it is the curator that maintains discussion. This niche expert collates information about a specific topic and is frequently sought after for advice about this specific area. They often take part in discussions with idea starters and are avid readers of topic-specific amplifiers.

Commentators – these people individually have little influence. Their behaviour often resembles little more than adding a comment without contributing greatly to the conversation. Their influence should not be ignored but should instead be viewed as a collective to measure the trend of opinion around a subject. An interesting factor is that this group are often self-moderating – when negative comments are posted often these contributors will often intervene to correct inaccuracies or a unfounded negative views.

Viewers – In the conversation this invisible group who we call viewers don’t leave a foot print except through Google. Indeed it is through Google, and the impact of viewers on search results, that these other groups become influential and evolve their role within a conversation. Authority rests with the search patterns of those who simply observe in a democratic world.

Conclusion

In order to stand the greatest for marketers to influence a conversation, they must appreciate what maturity stage the conversation currently is at. Upon doing that they will need to target the most appropriate person from within the topology and engage with them according to their behavioural characteristics.

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End note: We are currently beta-testing the next iteration of TweetLevel which will allow anyone to identify what type of influencer a tweeter is via its algorithm. If you would like a beta-access password, please contact @jonnybentwood

In Richard Edelman’s new blog post, he discuses that that in order to achieve resonance, a brand has to allow open conversations around a topic of societal interest. Brands have to be willing to risk losing control in exchange for gaining credibility. The three step process behind this has been defined by the Tuck Business School as ‘meaning management’.

TuckIn summary, a brand must first create awareness, followed by someone achieving association with the concept and only then can resonance be achieved.

This approach works exceptionally well when complemented by what we have been developing at the company for some time through the Topology of Influence.

Whereas the Tuck approach is bottom up, the topology methodology relies on targeting the smallest group first. The raison d’être behind this is that in order for a message to truly flow throughout the web/world then the most effective method is to engage firstly with the idea starters. Of course the approach should not be limited to this group but we should also actively target selected amplifiers and curators too.

topology

We are currently at a tipping point whereby sociology and technology are colliding enabling us to identify and engage with different kinds of influential people according to their behavioural characteristics.

It drives me mad how some brands are pushing the same marketing message at every ‘influencer’. My view is that we should adapt the strategy dependent upon the kind role that someone has in the topology.

For example, for idea starters you should have an argument. This kind of person does not want to be spammed with content but enjoy the rigour of a discussion that promotes or debates their theory. I tested this out personally by seeing if I could engage with someone whose time is in high demand. Instead of requesting a meeting, I sent them an email that referred to a premise they had championed and disagreed with it via a structured argument. The result – I was invited to meet with this ‘idea starter’ in person.

Conversely, this approach would be less successful with amplifiers. To engage with with this group, who do not have the time to get into deep discussion as they have numerous deadlines to manage to feed their high volume audiences, you need to send them pre-packaged content. This shouldn’t be a shock as it was the premise behind a press release. Of course there are other rules to apply (such as relevance, already having a relationship with the amplifier and appropriateness of delivered content).

There is a perfectly valid reason why we need to understand influence. Brands and marketers have limited time and money so we must engage with the people that count in the right manner. Only of we do this can we hope to have our message spread.

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It could be said Ed Keller and Jon Berry in writing The Influentials, discovered or at least articulated the importance of word of mouth.  They identified how one of humanity’s first forms of social influence—has become even more important and influential today for people making sense of the world.

The thing about highly influential people is they actively cultivate their influence. They view their influence as an asset and they invest in it and work on it. One of the best ways to get their attention is essentially to curate them and actively magnify their reach. – Michael Troiano

Keller and Berry thesis’ stated that one in every 10 Americans is what they call an “influential.” These people had a tremendous impact on the rest of society because their ideas and opinions are sought out by the friends, family and community members around them. The authors explain that the conversations they hold and the examples they set have the power to shape the community’s behaviours and attitudes.

The currency in influencer relations is ego. That’s the magic formula. How do you appeal to an ego in a way that you’re adding value without appearing like you’re appealing to that ego? – Joe Chernov

Social media has revolutionised many things but we believe that one biggest impacts has been on the nature of influence and the role of influentials.  Through the process of democratisation of authority the influential has been empowered and grown.  It seems hard to believe that as long ago as 2006 David Brain outlined the impact of this on the marketing world.

“So in communications and in the way brands and companies deport themselves to their customers and to their stakeholders the game is changing fast. The new model citizen who is increasingly participating and demanding a say and respect and, even a relationship, is not the person we used to know. They don’t believe us in the way the way they used to it is fundamental for most companies, brands, PR people and communicators.”

If marketers think social strategies and influencer strategies are the same thing, they are not getting it. Influencer strategies are most like traditional marketing. But social is so much more than just getting influencers and other third parties to carry your message into the marketplace. The whole influential chain is about understanding how the messages percolate and get transferred to multiple people. You need to understand your influencer heat map. Otherwise, you’ll focus on the big targets and miss where influence really takes place. -  Jonathan Yarmis

Essentially authority has seeped from the 10% that previously orchestrated the process of influence to everyone taking part in the conversation.  Today everyone in an online conversation can be a New Influential.  This is not to say that all these New influentials are born equal.  One of the defining features of online conversation is that it is visible – word of mouth made trackable.  This has enabled us to track influence and the interaction between influentials.

Our insight from this was dramatic as we found a small group certainly less than 1% who start new memes within a conversation we called these influentials idea starters.  These influentials had great authority but often relied on a bigger group around 10% of the conversation who we called amplifiers.  These are people who amplify ideas and circulate them within conversational communities.  Amplifiers often had professional or commercial motivations such as journalists, analysts but were also more often than not self created experts and avid sharers of information.  The third group of new influential we called curators these are those who look to put context around the conversation bring strands together and take it in new directions through adaption yet falling short of starting an entirely new meme.  The next group that we identified were commentators those who had a need to comment and add without giving deeply to the conversation often less influential their influence should not be ignored as when negative as in trolls a commentator can serious skew a conversation and opinion.  While we find very often commentators will often intervene to correct inaccuracies or a unfounded negative view.

Social and influencer strategies are two pieces of the same larger whole, which is outreach strategy. Anytime you’re trying to engage someone, you’re trying to accomplish four things. You want to engage them by letting them know you know who they are. You want to inform them of something that is of interest to them. You want to persuade them there’s more where that came from. And then you want to invite them into some kind of action-interaction world relationship. And then you want to lather, rinse, repeat, and replicate in scale. – Michael Dortch

Perhaps the controversial point about New Influentials is that everyone who takes part can everyone be influential.  But today taking part can simply be searching and reading in the conversation this group who we call viewers don’t leave a foot print except through Google.  Indeed it is through Google and the impact of viewers on search results that these other groups become influential and evolve their role within a conversation.  Authority rests with the search patterns of those who simply observe in a democratic world.

All quotes sourced from Ramp Up Your ROI with Strong Influencer Strategies

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