Shattering a Few Myths About How to Find the Influencers

William Goldman, the author and screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men), famously said, “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.”

You might say the same thing about the PR field, at least when it comes to so-called influencers.

In his book “Everything is Obvious* Once You Know the Answers,”  (2011,Crown Business), Duncan J. Watts, a principal researcher at Microsoft, discusses influencers and the ability of a person (or a blogger) to magnify a message to help raise brand awareness and boost visibility.

Watts gave a presentation last week at the PR Council’s Critical Issues Forum.

Whether they care to admit or not, for many companies and organizations locating influencers is often a nonstarter.

“One of the most confusing aspects of the influencer debate, in fact, is that no one can really agree on who the influencers are in the first place,” Watts writes.

In that vein, Watts shatters three myths about influencers and provides a dose of reality for each:

Myth #1: Social epidemics can be engineered by targeting influencers.

The Reality: Social epidemics are brought about in largely unpredictable ways, just like forest fires, Watts said. “You wouldn’t see a large forest fire and think that there was anything special about the spark that started it,” he said. “Yet for some reason when we observe dramatic social change, we assume it required some special person to start it. In reality, social change depends on some complicated combination of context and environment and interactions between many people. Boiling it down after the fact to the influence of a handful of special people makes for a good story but has little predictive power.”

Myth #2: There is some class of “influencers” who are both extraordinarily influential and also accessible like ordinary people.

The Reality: People are either accessible or influential, but seldom both. “At one extreme there are ordinary people who are reasonably accessible but who exert ordinary influence. And at the other extreme there are powerful figures like celebrities who have extraordinary influence, or gatekeepers who control access to influence, but in either case they are hard or expensive to influence,” Watts said. “Given some budget, it ought to be possible to find some optimal tradeoff between targeting a smaller number of more influential individuals and a larger number of less influential individuals. But there’s no free lunch.”

Myth #3: You can find the influencers just by using your intuition.

The Reality: Every campaign is only effective or ineffective compared with something else that you could have done with the same budget.  “Just because you create some influencer map and use to target some influencers and something good happens doesn’t mean your campaign ‘worked,’” Watts said. “It would be like running a drug trial without a control group and claiming your drug worked because some people got better. To get FDA approval you have to show that the drug worked better than whatever the control group received. The same test should be required for all claims about influencer marketing.”

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1