The Truth About Influence

Duncan Watts claims that the Influentials theory is nonsense, yet if he were to think critically about his own work, he’d see that there are many flaws to it. (Hat tip to Maki for sphinning the Fast Company piece on Watts.) Influence still matters.

Yahoo email adWas Mass Marketing Effective Or Was It Personal Networks Operating?

Let’s begin with the conclusion.

“The ultimate irony of Watts’s research is that, if you really buy it, the most effective way to pitch your idea is … mass marketing. And that is precisely what the wizards of Madison Avenue, presiding over our zillion-channel microniche market, have rejected as obsolete. “

What is this assertion based on? It’s based on an ad-buy Watts did, which integrated a share with your friends technology. The sharing technology doubled how many people saw the ad. Thompson paraphrases Watts as saying that this is proof that mass marketing is the most succesful. Yet it ignores the fact that the “success” was achieved because of personal influence. (Success is in quotation marks because ‘eyeballs seeing an ad’ is a terrible metric for success, as demonstrated by the dot-com crash.)

If we realize that banner blindness is alive and well, the pass-along value accounted for most of the ad’s views. I.e. it was social marketing at work.

Milgram Was On About Relationships, Not Influentials

Let’s play devil’s advocate though and say that the conclusion was just a distortion by Fast Company’s journalist. Let’s consider what Watts had to criticize about Stanley Milgram’s famous work.

“Why did Milgram get it wrong? Watts thinks it’s simply because his sample was so small–only a few dozen letters reached their mark. The dominance of the three friends could have been a statistical accident. “And since Milgram’s finding sort of made sense, nobody even bothered to redo the experiment,” Watts shrugs. But when you perform the experiment with hundreds of successfully completed letters, a different picture emerges: Influentials don’t govern person-to-person communication. We all do.”

Milgram’s study, as I understand it, is notable for two things. One, it discovered the six degrees of separation rule. This was confirmed by Watts. Two, three friends were responsible for passing most of the letters on to the final recipient.Six Degrees Separation

Six degrees of separation by Altiplana.

The Fast Company article distorts this second finding to mean that these three friends had huge ‘rolodexes’ (online, read: social networks). “When he [Watts] examined these pathways, he found that “hubs”–highly connected people–weren’t crucial. Sure, they existed. But only 5% of the email messages passed through one of these superconnectors. The rest of the messages moved through society in much more democratic paths, zipping from one weakly connected individual to another, until they arrived at the target.]

Do you see the difference?

Fast Company/Watts are talking about Influentials and saying that they’re only part of about 5% of the chains (which in itself smells funny to me; I’d expect the Pareto principle to be found here). Milgram said that three friends were the most frequent final link in the chain. And if you know anything about society, everybody has 2-3 best friends. Which is all Milgram’s experiment second element of notoriety shared. The experiment wasn’t so much about influential individuals as it was about the connections between them.

Consider any social network that engages in one form of ranking or another. Look at the top 50 Sphinners. A submission to Sphinn by one of these individuals is more valuable than one by a non-top 50 member because their submissions have added name recognition.

Finally, let’s bring it back to the beginning.

“These tastemakers, Gladwell concluded, are the spark behind any successful trend. ‘What we are really saying,’ he writes, ‘is that in a given process or system, some people matter more than others.’

The latest trend black and yellow giraffes with reversed colours.“In modern marketing, this idea–that a tiny cadre of connected people triggers trends–is enormously seductive. It is the very premise of viral and word-of-mouth campaigns: Reach those rare, all-powerful folks, and you’ll reach everyone else through them, basically for free.”

Again, Fast Company’s Clive Thompson twists an idea just enough that it loses its true meaning. (I don’t think it reflects anything malicious, just a lack of diligence in getting a thorough understanding of the background first.) Compare what Gladwell wrote to what Thompson wrote.

The latest trend by Lars van de Goor.

In a given process or system, some people matter more than others.” – Gladwell

“In modern marketing, this idea–that a tiny cadre of connected people triggers trends–is enormously seductive.” – Thompson

Modern marketing suggests that a small cadre of connected people is more influential, yes, but in a given process or system. Sphinn users are not particularly influential in having one athlete drafted over another (sorry, Jeff). But the top 25 Sphinners are responsible for the majority of hot submissions. Are you going to tell me that they’re not influential in the community? My friend Sean is a brilliant and succesful businessman. Yet if one of the top 10 Sphinners had shared the bug I found that with Google analytics as part of my first Scratchpad, I have little doubt that would have gone hot.


To conclude, Fast Company’s “Is The Tipping Point Toast” is a worthy read, but you should keep a critical eye open as there are some serious mistakes/misapprehensions of the subject matter.

That being said, I’m frequently on the harsh side – it’s in my nature as someone who wants those around him to improve. There’s a lot of excellent writing in the article and the truth is that as far as covering Watts’ ideas, Thompson does a great job. And Watts does have some valid points, like the fact that in society at large (i.e. not in a given ecosystem) a trend is more likely to start with an average Joe than with a connector or maven.

Overall, however, I agree with Keller’s assessment that Watts’ argument is a straw-man argument. “The long-tail of trend starters is bigger than the short head,” says Watts [paraphrasing here]. That’s news.

(Keller is an Influential theory proponent. I’ve just bought his book on eBay after reading this article and look forward to sharing his ideas with you.)

Above the Influence

Above the influence by Above the Influence anti peer-pressure group (talk about smart marketing!)

Thompson should have paid better heed to the influence theories and ideas that Watts is critical of. The Fast Company article does these theories a disfavour by misrepresenting some of their important aspects, as well as other related work, like Milgram’s. Influencing the influencers is alive and well as a marketing tactic; you just need to understand what that means.

Update: Seth Godin’s written a simple and powerful response to Fast Company’s article. Read his The Hyping Point for a clear view of how influence works [beyond just influentials or non-influential people].

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  1. *prod* Me wants a new postie

    Comment by SlightlyShadySEO - February 3, 2008 @ 4:37am
  2. Subscribe: There are two new ones.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - February 3, 2008 @ 1:53pm

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