Can we measure online influence? And should we even try?

One of the challenges with managing corporate a social media presence is understanding the impact that you’re making. It’s notoriously difficult because there is no “one true way”. Indeed, if there was a simple way to assess online influence, I’d say that its inventor could clean up.

What we do have though is a number of indices – and two of the most common are:

  • Klout “the standard for influence”.
  • PeerIndex “understand your social capital”.

OK, so we have algorithms to generate a number, but I’m not convinced they are really measuring influence. Klout in particular seems to be swayed by volumes of online activity– I went on holiday for a week and tweeted less often, then my Klout score fell – no surprises there then; but did I really become less influential because I dropped out for a week?

Earlier this week, I wrote a post calling for “brands” to engage and not to simply use social media as a marketing tool to broadcast their own message (or positive customer feedback).  But there is another side to the story – what if you are a brand?  How do you target your limited resources effectively? How do you assess the influence of a social media renegade and decide whether they warrant a response or not?

I’m not sure that we should be trying to. Does it really matter whether a disgruntled customer is influential or not? If they are disgruntled, then they deserve help – even if that help is simply pointing them in the direction of the appropriate channel to get an appropriate resolution.  It’s interesting though to see where influence engines meay head in future (and, indeed, how they might be monetised).

At a recent Digital Surrey event, I was chatting with Simon Cast, Head of Product at PeerIndex. He sees a time when systems such as his will become integrated with customer relationship management (CRM) systems (like Salesforce.com). For a business, that’s valuable – when I call their customer services team, not only can they see details of my transactions with them, but they can also see if I’m influential in a broader sense (i.e. could I damage them if they don’t fulfil my request?).  And, not only will they see if I’m influential in general terms, but if I’m influential on a specific topic. A car manufacturer might not be too bothered if I’m influential in the world of telecommunications, but what if I could potentially affect people’s car purchase decisions?

I guess an analogy to the social capital-CRM tie up is a credit score. My credit score not only affects the financial services products that are available to me (and how much they cost) but it (along with other metrics) might be used to tell my bank how valuable a customer I am, and may influence the way that they interact with me (e.g. sending my call to a UK-based call centre instead of an offshore one). Online influence is a logical equivalent for customer service organisations, but it sounds like a risky strategy to me.

Just to recap on my earlier statement:

“[…] I know only too well the challenges of monitoring and measuring social media activity; the resources that are required; and I completely understand that it’s not always possible to respond to every mention of your company’s products and services.

Even so, I’ve heard of organisations that consider whether to respond based on the apparent influence of the user. That sounds dangerous to me – someone may only have a limited online audience (for example, a handful of followers on Twitter) but their influence could be much wider. Perhaps a journalist/analyst has a personal and a professional Twitter account (or a blog), one with just a few followers, the other much more influential? Maybe the aggrieved/frustrated consumer is also a CIO, or a stakeholder in the business services purchasing process?

We’re all consumers, but many of us have responsibility for business purchases too – and it’s unrealistic to expect that poor experiences as a consumer won’t prejudice business decisions […]”

So can we really measure influence? Maybe we’re getting closer, but I don’t think we’re there yet. And should we even be trying to? There might be some benefits, but beware of the risks too…