The new influencer

Social media metrics are helping separate a million everyday Joes from the truly influential. Chris Daniels finds out how brands are digging deeper to discover today's trendsetters.

Social media metrics are helping separate a million everyday Joes from the truly influential. Chris Daniels finds out how brands are digging deeper to discover today's trendsetters.

How do you target influencers online when everyone has the potential to be one? Brands face that challenge as they look to drive website traffic, buzz, and, ideally, sales, by targeting people with the ability to sway the behavior of, in some cases, millions of followers.
 
Social media's rise has given everyday Joes the ability to share their passions and opinions with the masses through channels such as Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and even video. At the same time, brands have seen their Facebook pages balloon to millions of fans, making it more time consuming to figure out who among them are truly the most influential.
 
New tools such as Klout, SocMetrics, and Kred help brands sift through the landscape, beyond the top 50 or 100 mass influencers that have, traditionally, been identified. Todd Defren, principal of Shift Communications, tells PRWeek, “It is natural for both agencies and marketers to come up with the most simplistic way to determine influence because social media is making it so hard to scale.”
 
Brands such as Unilever are moving the process forward with deeper dives into the sphere of influencers. The company selected Sysomos to co-manage two-way consumer engagement, including ongoing identification of influencers, advocates, and what it calls “superfans.”

Influencer programs such as Hellmann's Real Foodies, which features a group of bloggers who post recipes using Hellmann's mayonnaise (and are sometimes compensated for doing so), are fueled by Sysomos analytic tools.
 

Intel extends its influence

Intel has developed its own internal system to identify and measure influence. Developed in partnership with WCG, the influencer tracking system measures 58 different metrics broken down by Twitter, blogs, and mainstream media. It also layers in information collected from tools such as Klout and Net Promoter Score.
 
“If you depend only on one tool, you can get trapped into an algorithm that may or may not work for your business,” says Becky Brown, director of social media for Intel. “That is why we outsourced and created a model to evaluate influence that would be unique to Intel.”
 
The company recently used the system to identify influencers for a seeding program for Intel-powered Ultrabooks, the new slim, lightweight PC laptop concept. Spanning from November through January, 190 Ultrabooks were delivered worldwide to people who showed significant influence online and in the real world in the subject areas of netbooks, technology, and design.
 
“We know there is a charm to the Ultrabook design, so we sent one to a designer and one to a photographer,” says Brown. “These people might not write about new PCs, but they integrate technology into their work and are influential within their networks.”
 
The seeding program has generated video content on YouTube. Intel videotaped influencers such as Glitter Guide's Taylor Sterling receiving their Ultrabook package and expressing surprise at its small size and light weight.

“Influencers have a built-in audience and add credibility within their area of expertise,” says Christine Cea, VP of marcomms at Unilever. “We strive to not only understand influencers, but to get to know the community they impact and the role of the brand within that sphere of influence.”
 
General Motors' Chevrolet division recently finished its second Klout Perks program, in which GM went into about five key US markets and offered Klout users with a score of 40 and higher (out of 100) access to a Chevy Sonic.
 
“The second program proved to us that if activations like this are authentic and let the users get really involved with their experience and share their feedback openly with us, it makes for a genuine, believable interaction to both the user and their audience,” says Carolin Probst-Iyer, manager of digital consumer engagement for Chevrolet.
 
Chevy's first Klout Perks initiative, launched about a year ago, gave influencers the chance to drive a Volt on loan. Other companies, meanwhile, layer various tools to create their own influencer ranking.
 
“We see communications departments take things such as number of Twitter followers, overlay influencer scores, and then make their own calculations around things such as topicality,” says Rob Begg, marketing VP at social media tools company Radian6. “Most PR pros are not taking just one tool at face value.”
 
Others, such as Intel, have developed their own proprietary systems to measure influence (see “Intel extends its influence” sidebar). “We've found there is so much flux in terms of scoring methodologies and algorithms behind those tools – which is understandable given they are in their infancy – they should be a bit more directional at this point,” says Irfan Kamal, SVP of digital/social strategy for Ogilvy PR, one of Intel's agency partners. “We'd also like to see more understanding around topical influence. That is a lot more useful for marketing purposes.”
 

Community impact
Influencer measurement vendors such as PeerIndex, Klout and, in particular, SocMetrics, have made or are starting to make significant investments into identifying influencers by topic or by specific community. For the time being, however, some agencies such as GolinHarris manually come up with their own vertical-specific lists and use tools including Klout and PeerIndex to refine them, says Len Kendall, digital director at the firm.
 
Still, while PR firms and clients might have a new ability to qualify influencers, that does not guarantee they will be able to sway behavior in a particular industry or community. For starters, many top influencers (such as mommy bloggers) are inundated by pitches. Stephanie Agresta, EVP and MD of social media for Weber Shandwick, says new influencers aren't typically receptive to press releases.
 

Under the influence

Klout CEO and cofounder Joe Fernandez talks about the growth of measuring online influence and expanding analysis to topical influencers.

Why are online influencers so important to marketers?
Influence has always been marketing's Holy Grail. The ability to connect with the few who have the power to shape the opinions of the many goes back more than 50 years. The problem has always been that influence between friends was primarily spread through word of mouth and couldn't be tracked. Social media has made word of mouth scalable. It can finally be measured. Online influence is important because it allows marketers to spread their message through highly targeted, trusted channels.

How are PR agencies using Klout to execute client campaigns?
The primary way Klout works with both PR firms and brands is through Klout Perks, which allows brands to get their products into the hands of the most influential people online and let them tell the story. PR agencies or brands come to us with a set of criteria (auto influencers in Chicago, for example), and then we invite the appropriate influencers from our community to participate in the campaign.

How is Klout being used to layer onto third-party platforms?
We offer an API [application programming interface] that allows third parties and applications to build useful tools on top of Klout. Tools such as HootSuite [which connects multiple social networks from one website] are a great example of a third-party application that takes the Klout score and puts it in a context that can be very valuable to a PR pro.

What's next?
Our focus is on transparency and actionability. We want to make it easy for marketers to understand data and be able to take appropriate actions based on it. We also intend to double down on our topical influence analysis in 2012, so marketers can expect a deeper understanding of influence within specific communities.

“I see more PR pros making themselves part of a particular community,” she adds. “As PR pros, we need to participate online and build our own personal profiles. But we must disclose we are PR pros because we're held to a higher standard online about who we are.” Agresta also suggests PR pros build relationships with key influencers at physical events, such as South by Southwest's Interactive Festival.
 
Andy Améndola, digital strategy director at DeVries PR, says getting to know influencers is key given the recent backlash of people who don't want their influence measured.
 
“Some people don't like being told what they're influential about,” he notes. “That is where having a person-to-person relationship with your influencer is important.”
 
Entering through the back door
Other agency pros suggest sometimes reaching the top influencers through the back door, so to speak. Jennifer Houston, president of Waggener Edstrom's Studio D, explains there is a subset – what the firm coins “meta-influencers” – who influence the influencers.
 
Studio D made that insight after working with a major tech company's Web arm and creating a social sphere that visually mapped out their influencers over two months.
 
“We identified several new influencers at the edge of that sphere, but they had a huge amplification factor because they touched multiple people at the core,” she says. “In the past, we would have said, ‘If these people aren't talking about the topic regularly, why reach out to them?' But it turned out these people were actually driving a lot of the people who were writing or talking about the client.”
 
Online influencer campaigns are also becoming popular with marketers, in part because of the measurement capabilities. Facebook-fan and Twitter-follower counts can easily be tracked and brands can watch where visits to their websites and social media channels have come from. Some marketers have also asked influencers to share digital coupons, which makes it even easier to calculate ROI.
 
“In most cases, however,” says Améndola, “the calculation of an influencer campaign is still more art than science.”
 
A number of firms hope to change that, though. Ogilvy PR is working for a number of clients to determine if there is a correlation between influencer score and engagement behavior, as well as conversion.
 
“Different campaigns have different goals, so in some cases we'll just be interested in overall exposure and reach,” says Kamal. “It's still early, but we'll see some relationship between actual actions and the quantified influence levels.”
 
Indeed, the evaluation, measurement, and tracking of influencers is still in its infancy. But as vendors refine their algorithms and start delving more deeply into topical influence, their tools will only become more robust.
 
“When a system has an algorithm I can fully trust because it takes into account all of the different factors that impact influence, that will be a very big deal for the industry,” says Defren. “The bad news is that everyone will have access to the same data, which could make reaching out to influencers even more of a hassle than it is now.”

So even if an influencer identification tool becomes bulletproof, Defren says, “It will still be incumbent on PR firms to find the niche influencers who can really carry the day.”

Who's that spokesperson in the window?

New ways of measuring social media influence are helping agencies and their clients evaluate potential spokespeople.

Procter & Gamble partnered with Mike Birbiglia, a comedian and author of the best-selling book Sleepwalk with Me, in a cross-promotional effort with Macy's to promote P&G's Ultra Downy April Fresh fabric softener. For one week last year, P&G had Birbiglia live in a window display at the Macy's Herald Square flagship store in New York and interact with the public on the street and on Downy's Facebook page. He was also in multiple videos posted daily to Downy's YouTube and Facebook pages.

Andy Améndola, director of digital strategy for DeVries, the firm that helped develop the campaign for P&G, says Birbiglia was a natural fit for the promotion, particularly given his chronicled struggle with a sleep disorder, but Améndola says the firm also ensured his profile extended into social media.

“The key,” he says, “is finding the right influencer for your brand, someone with an audience receptive to your message.”

Améndola says his firm often uses tools such as Cision, Klout, Compete, and Consumer Pulse “to gain insight into the reach and popularity of influencers.”

Sara Pasquinucci, external relations manager for P&G fabric care, says Birbiglia helped increase organic searches for Downy by more than 50% in two weeks, triple Downy's Facebook fans, gain 17,000 Twitter followers, and spur 10,000 messages to Birbiglia online.

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