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Posted: July 27, 2009

The future of influence

Just as people maintain concentric circles of relationships, they also manage and direct concentric circles of influence

Thomas Frey and Raymond Alvarez

Clergymen, columnists and teachers have it. Even butchers at grocery stores have it. What they do is hold your attention better than most and engender trust. That’s influence.

We are social creatures who shape our lives, lifestyles, consumer habits and beliefs according to the influences and influencers in our lives. We can usually name the most influential people we know. We quickly can point to songs and films that made us think, laugh, cry or change. By the same token, we all have a private fan club, groups of people who care about and listen to us.

Your persona has fans, a group that expands and contracts as your personal charisma and the power of what you have to say waxes and wanes. In media, influence is measured by how many people listen and or act.

The job offers you receive, the business opportunities that come your way and the people you meet are all influenced by the relationships you have built. Your ability to manage and influence your fan club will determine, to a large extent, where you end up on your life’s journey.

Fan clubs are as old as culture itself, dating back to days long before fanatical teenagers fell in love with rock stars. And, worship didn’t always involve people. Some clubs develop around ideas, themes, trades or even industries. Space elevator enthusiasts come to mind.

Influence is as old as tribes. Influence powerfully transcends what other considerations may preoccupy us at a given time. An influencer is a person who not only wants you to care about them or an institution, but they want to sway your thinking, to call you to action and recruit others to a cause.

Influence is commodity-like, too. It can be borrowed as an author might do when citing an authority. You can enlist fans by making reference to experiences surrounding an image, personality, brand and charisma of the influencer. Elite athletes like Olympic medalists and NFL quarterbacks are paid a king’s ransoms for endorsements. Complete strangers can gain our trust, and influence us.

Influence profiles

Who are your primary influencers? Who is it that you pay most attention to when they recommend something?

Major media still invests heavily in salaries for news people who have built reputations over time and earned trust in smaller markets. Bylined staff writers and others who populate traditional media were the few, the elite. You could count the number of major news outlets on one hand. There were television stations, radio stations and the various publications that populated newsstands. Today, the number of offerings have exploded with online media, podcasts, satellite radio, downloadable books and somewhat devious influencers such as TV shows with sneaky attempts at product placement.

In the 2000 edition of “Positioning” by Al Ries and Jack Trout, the authors cite the statistic that America consumes 57 percent of all of the advertising in the world. This shouldn’t surprise us. The wealthiest nation is also home to the largest concentration of media in the world. There is no escaping advertisement. Even ads positioned on bathroom walls offer no refuge from the onslaught of pitches.

Media of the last century used a shotgun approach to marketing, spraying a large demographic area with pellet messages intended for all, but would strike a tiny percentage. This expensive and wasteful type of marketing will begin to vanish. Trying to shape a message that resonates with as many people as possible is an underappreciated art --that is until you win a cool million for your Doritos commercial, like the ones that aired during the 2009 Super Bowl. Madison Avenue is still smarting from that assault on their pride. They should get used to getting bested by the little guys.

Over time, the geek-laden Numerati – so aptly labeled in Steve Baker’s recent book – will devise systems for targeting ideal customers. Armed with the exacting precision of nextgen digital targets they will increase the percentage who respond to a message from the 1 percent range of today’s direct marketing pieces to conceivably as high as 50 percent. The response rate will rise. Perhaps most reassuring, the other 50 percent won’t feel they are being nagged by a constant barrage of misdirected ads.

Open-source influencers

Just as people maintain concentric circles of relationships, they also manage and direct concentric circles of influence. Each circle of association starts with the strongest rapport close to us and extends out to weaker and weaker relationships.

Today’s technology tools allow marketers to extend their reach far beyond anything we could have dreamed of 20 years ago, and the barrier to entry today is nearly non-existent. The gatekeepers can join buggy whip makers in history’s unemployment line. “Getting the word out” will be done by anyone interested in sharing information. Things as simple as a blog entry, Facebook or Twitter post, Flickr photo or YouTube video are grabbing audience attention as never before, in numbers that have marketers running to social media boot camps.

Social media experimentation is producing some interesting projects, turning social networking into a popularity contest. Many become confused by the sheer power of social media, finding themselves suddenly out of their element when it comes to leveraging popularity and influence. Even as they reach the lofty levels of 20,000 or even 50,000 followers on Twitter, the proud owners of these accounts find that they are unable to cash in. Their massive numbers don’t translate to influence. Product recommendations and personal endorsements made by someone with no credentials other than a large follower-base tend to fall on deaf ears. Perhaps there are few genuine followers among so many leaders.

Meanwhile, someone with 1,000 to 2,000 followers can have a disproportionate influence in social media, building an audience of readers who hang on their every word.

We are in the early stages of social media experimentation. No one is taking bets on the value of a Twitter account with 50,000 followers – yet. And certainly not on the value of that account five years from now.

In the future, so-called super-influencers will begin to undergo massive scrutiny to accurately parse the profile and makeup of each swayable impression, assigning value to each potential conversion. In short, every influencer will need to know their own metrics.

Read the second part of this article about defining trends here.

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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities.Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

Raymond Alvarez is a journalist, microblogger and emerging expert in social media. He is president and owner of Nextwave Communications, which provides cutting edge communication services to the Colorado business community. The Boulder County firm offers research, writing, strategic planning and analysis.

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

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