How Do You Evaluate Influence?

Marketers and PR professionals are facing an explosion in the quantity and diversity of influencers – the people with real and measurable impact on the decisions other people make. Social media has fueled the rise of influencers in all shapes and sizes – but how do you measure influence? Some might say by an arbitrary, numerical score. Others might say by the number of Followers or ‘Likes’ somebody has. I don’t know what I think, but I do know I’m probably not buying a toaster if Justin Bieber says its great.

I think you need more than a number to determine influence. This is a similar argument that I have about Google Page Rank. TechCrunch has a PageRank of 8/10, while Consumer Reports has a PageRank of 7/10 – who’s opinion matters most when thinking about whether or not to buy that iPad? It depends on more than a numerical score, doesn’t it?

So how do you measure and evaluate influence? The measurement of influencer voices has become a hot topic in the marketing and PR worlds because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do.  It’s hard enough to identify the would-be influencers in the first place, because they’re no longer wrapped up in neat little bundles of industry publications and mainstream business magazines/newspapers.  Social media, blogs, and other online media have made influencer identification dramatically more complex.
Granted, anyone with an audience has some level of influence. It might be influence over 2 people or two million, it’s influence nonetheless.

Today, influencers are found among the authors of millions of blogs, tens of millions of Tweets , and even in the comments sections of blogs and message boards. But who are the key influencers who can really move your market to take action?  It’s possible that the most important Influencers for a particular company, product or service have nothing to do with the traditional media contacts that every marketer/PR pro has on their Rolodex.

Once you actually find all of the folks who are talking about your market, your products or your people, then you have to figure out which ones are really influencers. Here are a couple of factors to consider when evaluating relevance:

  • Topical Relevance: do they actively write about your topic of interest, creating analytic content that addresses your precise market?
  • Authority: do their voices reach a relevant audience for you? Does the audience respect his/her opinion?
  • Ability to Drive Action: even if a would-be influencer writes about your topic – and does so authoritatively – does the influencer have the ability to drive your audience to action (e.g. make a purchase)?

Understanding how a potential influencer ranks across these areas is important for evaluating their value to your communications program. This information is not yet at the fingertips of most PR and marketing professionals. You won’t find it from your clipping service, it’s not in your PR software and it’s not a Google search away.

I have no doubt that many vendors are working on new and improved ways to measure, analyze and track influence, but there isn’t much out there today. There are services like Klout that assign a numerical value to somebody based on myriad of factors like Twitter Followers or Facebook Friends, but these types of tools are in their infancy as solutions and are based strictly on popularity and not relevancy (my opinion). I like Klout, because I don’t have something better to use… yet.

There are other solutions out there that help marketers target audiences based on the typical ad targeting categories (age, gender, geography and interests), but again, they don’t provide enough data to accurately predict influence. And it’s the wrong way to guess at influence.

Much like the age-old debates that still exist over the best way to measure public relations results, I fear we’ll have the same challenges finding the right solution to measuring and evaluating influence. There will be many different ways to do so, and a lack of consensus between marketers and PR profesionals.

I’m optimistic that new services will come out to help us better evaluate and target influencers, and to measure the impact those influencers have in driving action. For example, there’s a new service coming out from mBLAST, that will look at influencer identification based on algorithms to analyze the reach and impact of an influencer’s voice (without using an arbitrary score that applies to all situations).

For example, using the mBLAST tool, there may be two influencers who write about smartphone apps and both have all of the prerequisite authority and ability to drive action.  But one may have more influence over the Android market while the other is big in the Apple space.  So a score is less relevant than the specifics of his/her true influence. Only a solution that uses topical relevancy can dive deeper into targeting.

While we’re in the season of 2011 predictions, I wanted to get the concept of topical relevancy out there when evaluating influencers. I think we’ll see influencer targeting heat up in 2011 and more and more solutions enter the market to help PR and marketing professionals. I don’t think we’re to the point where anyone can say what the right or wrong way to measure influence is, but it’s time to start having that discussion if you’re not already.

What do you think? What’s the best way to find and evaluate influence? How do you do it today? How important is topical relevance compared to reach?

(Image Credit: iStockphoto)

About Jeremy Porter 214 Articles
Jeremy Porter has been passionate about the intersection of public relations and journalism since studying both Public Relations and Journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University in the late 90s. Porter launched Journalistics in 2009 to share his ideas and insights around both professions and how trends and developments in modern day marketing, communications, and technology impact those working in these fields. Porter also values the traditions and history of both professions and regularly shares his perspective in these areas - and related topics geared toward the next generation of journalism and public relations professionals.


  1. Great post. Influence is definitely a pain to measure… and, well… I’d argue it’s almost impossible to measure. You need to have the element of reputation/trust in the calculation, and that’s a hard thing to quantify. We have a market layer at Empire Avenue, and it’s definitely proving to be rather interesting — while Justin Bieber is #1 on the web in terms of “Twitter Score” (objective metrics like follower #s, retweets, replies/mentions and activity) he drops to #2 behind Mashable once you factor in how many people have bought shares on our virtual stock market. If he didn’t have such a head start due to the size of his audience, he’d actually be a lot lower; Lady Gaga, Mashable, NY Times, Google, Wikileaks and others have all sold more shares than Bieber since we launched our Twitter Index.

    Does that mean those accounts are more influential than Justin Bieber? Maybe. Maybe it’s just an indication of what our own users are interested in (Bieber, perhaps, is not one of them). Either way, it’s impossible to measure influence without some element of trust. It can’t possibly just be about purely objective metrics.

    • Good thoughts Tom. Full disclosure, I’m the CTO at mBLAST and I’m going to reply with my thoughts that have been driving some of how we’re approaching this. True store here. I replaced my third instant hot water dispenser in 5 years a couple of weeks ago. They are expensive and I wanted another brand but couldn’t find one at Home Depot or Lowe’s for that matter. So I went on-line. I would have done that first, but I wanted to replace it quickly. I used Google to find the product in various articles, blogs, and sites and then looked for anti-products (if you will). I read about them and read the comments by people.

      I found that people, generally, had the same issues with the product that just broke on me and suggested another. I went to Amazon and found it there, and I read all the comments. Based on the comments I bought the new brand’s product there because their price was amazing after using a price comparison site.

      So where is trust here? I don’t know any of these people that guided me and I never will. I read what I judged to be sane and accurate reportage of people’s experiences. If these were rolled up by my subject matter, and I had all those results that took me an hour to aggregate in one place, and they were ranked and organized it would have been amazing. Which is why we’re building a new product at mBLAST. Also, if the people that ran the company did, they’d know there was a severe quality problem with their product and they were losing sales. And no generalized number was needed here either on the reviewers (who are mostly one-offs anyhow) or the products because I didn’t care. The product that kept breaking was #1 by any “normal” ranking and the one I bought was not. You might also notice all this happened without using Twitter because, at least I don’t think, people are tweeting about hot water dispensers or garbage disposal thoughts there.

      And all this without a Justin Bieber or Lady GaGa tweet too, can you imagine? 🙂



      • Mark, exactly. Twitter is a good place to find people influential about… Twitter. And other social networks. Maybe SEO and technology. Sometimes even influential journalists can be found. Beyond that? At the end of the day, sheer numbers always lead to higher “influence” scores, and it’s only going to be reflective of the medium. Step outside the walls of Twitter and those influence scores probably don’t mean too much. Valuable in terms of discovering people who are active and have a big following? Yes. Influence? Meh.

  2. My only quibble is, I think, with your comparison of single-score influence metrics and Google PR. You define influencers as, “the people with real and measurable impact on the decisions other people make.” No problem there. But influence scores like Klout are specifically designed to measure the extent to which one is an influencer. Google PR has a different mission, and that’s not it. Otherwise, good stuff.

    • I see your point Ian. I think authority is a better word. In the case of PageRank, it’s based on authority and passing that authority along. With influence, I think authority has a lot to do with the weight of one’s influence. In the case of Klout, I feel like it’s more an indicator of potential reach than influence. Thanks for your feedback.

  3. Loved this post, Jeremy! As a PR professional, one of the areas I’ve found most challenging is measurement. We want to do the best we possibly can for our clients and it’s frustrating when an overabundance of our time is spent on the research side. I’m excited to see what additional tools are on the horizon to help us pinpoint the influencers who matter to our clients as well as the folks who actually want to hear from us as well.

  4. Hi Jeremy – This is a really relevant topic for PR pros! I definitely agree with your suggestions on other factors to consider when evaluating influence. I really hope we turn a corner in 2011 and stop measuring influence solely based on followers, likes and Klout scores (not saying everyone does this, but many do). Sure, it takes more time to dig deeper and examine something like authority and ability to drive action, but it’s worth the effort.

  5. Interesting post, certainly hits a nerve with what’s going on in social media these days, the predictable quest for metrics. I went over the mBlast as a result, to see what’s going on there, which does look interesting … and it also seems like you should add into this discussion, because they’re working on influence metrics based on a combination of algorithms, a lot more sophisticated than just adding up followers or retweets, and making that available to the general public.

  6. Jeremy, Some great conversations going on here. Love the comments from Ian, Nikki, Tom and Mark. It’s more than vanity numbers. Goes back to context and as you said, regardless of whatever fame someone has, it’s more about their authority, expertise. Bieber ain’t gonna convince me to buy anything. 😉

    Influence is very sphere-driven and as Tom mentioned, it’s contained within those networks. Real impact would have to crossover, outside of Twitter, beyond social media talking about social media. Which hits back on Mark’s point about how a Google search led to true influence without engagement or networking; just discovery of a common issue with suggestions from the limited pool of those who shared their opinions online.

    Topical influence, authority and reach all factor into influence as well as “old-fashioned” search b/c even the most informed, connected opinion probably won’t have as much influence if it’s not there to be shared, discovered. FWIW.

  7. Thank you for this blog post.

    Measuring influence requires several factors to be effective. The easiest place to begin is with number of followers or likes. The harder thing to do is take time to find and monitor those key publics in your industry that appear to have influence. Then set up a listening post, and, over the course of several weeks or months, continue to monitor, add to, and take away from this listening post. Look for those that get the most comments, retweets, and likes. Which publics are influential over an extended period of time? Whom do others consider to be influential?

    A key benefit from this approach is that you become familiar with key bloggers/tweeters/opinion leaders that talk about your company or industry, and you will be able to better discern between those who have influence and those who do not. You won’t rely as much on applications that try to measure influence.

  8. Hey Jeremy, I appreciate the quality of dialogue going on here. Nice post and you’ve clearly attracted a great community.

    Like Mark, I’ll also start with a disclosure — I’m one of the Co-Founders of Spot Influence, a Boulder TechStars 2010 company. (Our name probably gives you a pretty good idea of what we do…)

    We’re in total agreement on the factors that are needed to produce an accurate/useful topical influence metric. We call them Relevance, Reach, and Impact, but it amounts to the same thing as you describe above.

    Believe me when I tell you that this is a bit tricky. As Tom suggested, the challenge is to keep it from becoming a numbers game with Bieber, GaGa and Mashable always topping the results.

    So, how do you do it right? At the end of the day, what’s required is to find every piece of matching content across the web, determine authorship, connect the dots on each person’s disparate outlets, and then use friend/follower connections and micro-interactions to create a weighted social graph for the entire community of people taking part in the ongoing online conversation on that topic.

    As I said, it’s a bit tricky.

    We’re still finishing building everything out, but I’d love your feedback when we go to beta.



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