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How Influential are Influentials?

I don’t often do book reports around here, but I just got through Duncan Watts and Peter Sheridan Dodds’ paper, “Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation” [PDF] and thought it might be worth sharing some quotes and thoughts (especially since it’s 36 pages of fairly dense material).

As I wrote recently their basic thesis is that so-called “influentials” are not all they’re cut out to be (especially by people like Gladwell and Keller). Though as they explain in the conclusion, “Our main point, in fact, is not so much that the influentials hypothesis is either right or wrong, but that it’s micro-foundations, by which we mean the details of who influences whom and how, require very careful articulation in order for its validity to be meaningfully assessed.” While Watts and Dodds’ own work leaves me with some questions, this seems like a hard assertion to argue with. To come up with a true theory of influence, the details of influence need to be universally defined and understood.

In fact, I don’t know that Watts and Dodds go far enough themselves, mainly because influence is so hard to pin down. Observationally, who influences whom and how can change on a daily basis and greatly depends on things like topic & relationship (as well, I’d argue, on outside factors like how busy the recipient is at time of influence). Watts and Dodds do acknowledge these factors, however, suggesting that “large scale changes in public opinion are not driven by highly influential people who influence everyone else, but rather by easily influenced people, influencing other easily influenced people.”

This, in and of itself, doesn’t seem particularly controversial. If you go with the idea that 10% of the population is influential, that leaves 90% of the population that’s not. Then if you assume that, especially in the current media/advertising landscape, the influential 10% is hardest to reach because they are the most overexposed (and thus have their attention stretched the thinnest), it seems that your effort may be much better spent thinking about options. What’s more, according to Watts and Dodds’ research, while “influentials have a greater than average chance of triggering critical mass, when it exists … [their effect is] only modestly greater, and usually not even proportional to the number of people they influence directly.”

As they explain in their conclusion, the simplest way to understand this is to look at natural analogues such as forest fires:

Some forest fires, for examples, are many times larger than average; yet no-one would claim that the size of a forest fire can be in any way attributed to the exceptional properties of the spark that ignited it, or the size of the tree that was the first to burn. Major forest fires require a conspiracy of wind, temperature, low humidity, and combustible fuel that extends over large tracts of land. Just as for large cascades in social influence networks, when the right global combination of conditions exists, any spark will do; and when it does not, none will suffice.

Upon reading that I was immediately brought back to something I wrote about last year. My thesis in that entry was that the marketing paradigm of leading with a single message was outdated and your better bet was to create a huge array of messages (sparks) hoping that one would ignite a cascade effect (forest fire). Especially in a digital context, where message production costs are significantly lowered, why not throw lots against a wall and see what sticks (after all, measurement and fast iteration are possible).

With all that said, there is one major issue I have with Watts and Dodds work, which they admit to in the paper: They are examining interpersonal influence, not media influence. While they admit that the distinction is a bit blurry, especially in the eyes of things like blogs, they continue on with the assumption (which doesn’t seem to be grounded in any research) that “the influence of the blogger seems closer to that of a traditional newspaper columnist or professional critic, than that of a trusted confidant, or a even casual acquaintance.” Now I don’t want to harp on bloggers, but I don’t know that I agree with this thesis.

Part of what makes blogs such a fascinating communications medium is the combination weak and strong ties that can constitute a readership. While large readership blogs (like BoingBoing for example) most likely reflect a more journalistic relationship, smaller blogs like this one act much differently. Of the thousand-plus readers who frequent this site I would guess that a significant portion constitute what I would consider a weak tie (we have emailed back and forth) and a smaller portion constitute strong ties (family and close friends). This, I would assume, is significantly different than the average “newspaper columnist or professional critic” who tend to live in another realm. In other words, the availability of bloggers may change how and when their influence functions.

This, of course, is a major critique I have of most communications theory. As my sister, who is getting her undergraduate degree in communications can attest to, I get incredibly upset when interpersonal communications disregards mediated communications. In our current age, the boundaries between interpersonal and mediated communications is hard to pin down. That’s because the same technologies (email, blogging and even text messaging) can be used for both broadcasting and interpersonal communications. Therefore, it’s left up to the recipient to decide whether the communications is interpersonal or not. Prior to that, interpersonal communications was done entirely via one-to-one media (things like face-to-face and phone). While I’m not sure how to resolve this, it does create a major issue in all influential research because it leaves the researcher with an incredible amount of variables to contend with.

Finally, I think a discussion of engagement is probably relevant as I think it’s directly correlated to influence (and when combined with reach may change things slightly). When we launched Street Mining we got two links from largeish sites, one with a very large, but more casual readership and one with a smaller, more dedicated one. While the larger site drove more clicks, the smaller site drove more signups. This, I believe, is the simplest explanation of engagement/influence I have seen: Clearly the smaller site’s readers were a better audience for the message than the larger site. (Of course the lack of control in this experiment means that it’s impossible to say whether it was these factors that led to additional sign-ups.)

This is an interesting paradox that I think relates to this whole influential debate and is often a stumbling block. Influence and reach are two entirely different things. While the two can be related (and historically have been), on the internet they’re not necessarily. For example, we’ve all heard about the “Digg effect” when I site gets to the front page of Digg and is hit with a deluge of traffic. What’s interesting about this traffic is that it often doesn’t result in much additional long-term interest, as the audience is a large and varied one. Therefore, while the site may be considered influential from a pure mass perspective, it’s influence seems much more superficial (I don’t have data to back this up, but have read many discussions on the subject). I would say that while Digg has a large reach and high influence (causing the influx of visitors), the engagement of that audience is low (meaning that they visit the dugg site once and don’t return). (Engagement is a bad word for this, but I’m having trouble thinking of another at the moment. If someone has a better way to describe it, please let me know.)

My argument would be that on many smaller sites the influence is deeper since those relationships tend to be stronger. This creates an interesting dynamic. While I don’t know that it’s statistically relevant, I do think it’s worth exploring some more. Blogs and other associated media do allow people to amplify their voices to more strong and weak ties than ever before, allowing people to have journalistic-sized audiences with relationships that more reflect interpersonal communication.

I think that’s about it. I hope I haven’t bored you to death (I can only imagine if you’ve actually made it to the bottom that I haven’t). Would love to hear your thoughts and feedback (on both Watts and Dodds’ paper and my thoughts). Thanks for reading.

January 28, 2008


  • Mike Arauz says:

    Great round up, Noah.

    Maybe there’s just been too much emphasis on the individual instead of the conversations between individuals.

    I think that identifying paths of communication is interesting, and potentially the most rewarding strategic undertaking. If, as Watts asserts, that the optimal environment is one in which the individuals are most susceptible to change – which is reasonable regardless of the validity of influentials – then we should be looking for paths of least resistance.

    But a better way to think of it may be to look for paths of greatest resonance.

  • Gavin Heaton says:

    Great post! The way I see it, the challenge is about influencing contagion — ie mass attitude/behaviour. It is not just about influence, but how that can be extended into some form of action or changed perception.

    As Granovetter’s theory implies, the weak links are the ones that hold most sway over action. Engagement is fine for generating awareness but action is what you want when moving into a new or deeper phase of brand/marketing activation. And I think this is what makes Watts and Dodds paper most interesting.

  • Jonathan Trenn says:

    Very insightful post here Noah.

    The dynamics of interpersonal relationships and the many categories of how someone can be influenced (the values one has, whom to vote for, what to purchase) are so diverse that it is nearly impossible to make broad declarations on the power of influence.

    And given the fact that most people gravitate toward those that they have some sort of agreement with, it can skew it even more.

    You’ve influence me to come back to your blog, which has now extended your reach. ; )

  • Gaurav Mishra says:

    Unless I’m way off the mark here, and correct me if I am, the only debate here is whether you should spend your marketing dollars targeting your ads at a lower number of influentials or reaching a broader market. This is a debate about cost trade-offs, not the fundamental nature of social networks.

    Given that the objective of most marketers is to spread a given idea in the most cost-efficient manner (and it is), given that improvements in technology will make it more cost-efficient to identify and target influentials (and it will), and given that influentials themselves will become more connected via social media tools (and they will), word-of-mouth/ social/ viral marketing practitioners will do well to continue to focus on the tipping point potential of influentials.

  • Noah Brier says:

    Thanks for all the comments, guys, I really appreciate it and am glad you enjoyed.

    Gaurav, not sure I completely agree. I think this is about the fundamentals of how information communicates. Network theory as we know it is in its infancy and we are only beginning to understand how things travel throughout them. Research like this has implications outside just marketing/advertising such as politics, religion or environmentalism.

    As for the second point, I again am not sure I completely agree. I mean you may be right, but Watts seems to be suggesting that there isn’t much of a difference between targeting influentials and regular people in getting a trend started. With that said, Watts admittedly is not talking about how information spreads through media and considers things like blogs media, so I would say yes, you’re right that if you’re trying to get a viral trend started you’d be right in reaching out to influential bloggers and other media personalities (whatever that media may be).

  • Mikej says:

    Great post Noah

    I have been a bit out of the loop. So I had to sit back for a bit and read through everything. Reading through everything and only understanding some. I think it comes down to four things

    1. the time is right
    2. relevance for me
    3. influentials influencing influentials
    4. Breaking the cool group

    this is going to be long… so I will not take up space here and do it on my blog


  • Mark Earls says:

    Hi Noah. Interesting post on a subject I’ve been kicking around a fair bit, too. e.g http://herd.typepad.com/herd_the_hidden_truth_abo/2008/01/influencers-the.html

    Think the most important issues here are:

    1. the difference between human-human influence and information transmission (most is behavioural not informational as your Digg point underlines)
    2. Network theory is a good source of metaphor but it isn’t the same as behaviour propagation (it makes sense if you insist on looking at things from the brand’s perspective but not from that of the audience – this is very Old Media, it seems to me). Remember, please, that human networks are not like wires or anything else fixed that network theory was first developed for…
    3. the central point that Watts makes is that it isn’t those exerting the influence that matters but those that are choosing to be influenced: not those who lead but those who follow…again this is hard to get our heads around because we can’t help thinking that it’s us and what we do to people that matters – not their willingness to follow us or comply in other ways…

    Good stuff, though

    And in anycase the 10% hypothesis just doesn’t seem to be replicated in reality (either in information flow or actual behaviour)…

  • Sara says:

    Noah – Found this particular post fascinating because it crosses over so many interests of mine. Not going to weigh in yet as I haven’t read Watts and Dodds’ paper but thought I’d suggest the word captivity rather than engagement as a way of describing a pull of a site/product?

  • zackcohn says:

    Do you consider Justin Bieber retweeting a fan saying “OMG I have bieber fever. please buy his new album!!” an example of interpersonal interaction? Because I don’t. I think it is superficial compared to a smaller blogger responding to and engaging in a dialogue with readers of his/her site or Twitter profile. But most influence measurement sites present this kind of communication between celebrities and fans as the highest form of influence that takes place online.

  • Pedro Daltro says:

    Solid post,Noah. I have this post open in my chrome tab for so long… finally i got to read! amazing subject.

  • Setting the Stage for Innovation | Noah Brier dot Com says:

    […] This reminded me a lot of Duncan Watts’ research on influence on the web, where he concluded, “large scale changes in public opinion are not driven by highly influential people who influence everyone else, but rather by easily influenced people, influencing other easily influenced people.” In fact, Watts also used a fire to explain the dynamic in his conclusion: Some forest fires, for examples, are many times larger than average; yet no-one would claim that the size of a forest fire can be in any way attributed to the exceptional properties of the spark that ignited it, or the size of the tree that was the first to burn. Major forest fires require a conspiracy of wind, temperature, low humidity, and combustible fuel that extends over large tracts of land. Just as for large cascades in social influence networks, when the right global combination of conditions exists, any spark will do; and when it does not, none will suffice. […]

  • Derek Dillon says:

    Great post, Noah. I’ll be digging deeper into the paper later this week. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the whole Kendrick Lamar/”Control” controversy and where it sits with engagement, influence and action.

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