Monday, December 29, 2008

This is why the 'authority matters' argument is total BS

Over the past few days, the usual suspects/A-Listers drug back out the tired old argument that the size of your network equals 'influence' in the social media space. One of them said that they wanted to be able to search by 'authority'(followers) on Twitter, and implied that followers=influence on Twitter.

Here's an example of why this thinking is not only archaic, but dead wrong when it comes to social media.

On Friday night I got off Twitter for a couple of hours. When I got back to the computer, the first thing I did was check my blog's traffic, which I always keep a close eye on.

Now you have to remember that this was the Friday after Christmas. I had 79 visitors on Christmas day, so I would expect for my traffic on the day after Christmas to be a bit higher, but not by much.

When I checked it on Friday, I found that I had 126 the previous HOUR!

What had happened? A couple of people had tweeted a link to this post I wrote last week on building your followers/subscribers, and then it snowballed. Over the next 24 hours, I found several times where it had been retweeted. And of all the people that retweeted it, I only found 2 that had more than 2,000 followers.

Now here's the key; the 'authority matters' logic tells us that in order to see a our ideas spread, we need to target 'influentials'. And these people believe the 'influentials' are people with a lot of followers on Twitter. Fewer followers means less influence. At least, that's they way their 'logic' goes.

But instead of having one person with 10,000 followers link to my post, I had a guy with 900 followers link to it, and that led to another dozen or so people following suit. When the smoke cleared, Twitter had sent this blog about an extra 500 visitors over a 2-day period. Not too shabby.

Three things to keep in mind about Twitter:

1 - When it comes to follower counts, bigger isn't always better. Take the average Twitter user that has let's say 50 followers. Those 50 followers are probably all friends, many of them are likely close friends. So if this person sends out a tweet to their 50 friends to 'check out this post by Mack Collier on using Twitter. GREAT advice!!!', the odds are that many of their 50 followers will read the post. And it also means that those 50 followers are much more likely to retweet the link. See you don't focus on the SIZE of the audience, you focus on the likelihood that the post will be shared. Retweets can quickly trump a large follower amount.

2 - The context of the link is key. Which is more interesting, 'New post by Jim on TweetDeck', or 'Great post by Jim on using TweetDeck to organize your Twitter followers! Must read!'. Clearly, there's a much more persuasive 'call to action' in the latter tweet.

3 - Everyone has a network, everyone has a community. That network might be 1,000 followers, or it might only be 10. But even if it's a small network, all it takes is one person to RT the link to a follower with 5,000 followers, and if they RT, then the floodgates could open. People aren't siloed, and ideas spread via Twitter with amazing efficiency.


Danny Brown said...

Said exactly what needed to be said, Mack.

You know the best way to gauge "authority"? How what you do actually helps others. You make a difference in lives, that's authority.

Not some trumped up "I have X thousand followers so I must be great" - since when did being followed by The Real Britney Spears and Darth Vader make one great? ;-)

Show me recommendations by people I trust and selfless help and giving, and then we can talk.

Sean Scott said...

Excellent post Mack. It's too easy to game the system now as it is, for sheer number of followers to really correlate to influence.

I think how many retweets you are generating and how far they are reaching beyond your immediate circle of friends is a better guage of influcence. At least it's a better start.

Alan Wolk said...

It's even bigger than that Mack. Or more basic:

The notion of "influencers" stems from the fact that Twitter initially took off with the Silicon Valley crowd. That's part of their culture, the notion that certain people are "experts" and worth listening to. (Much of that stems from the fact that one can invest in technology and hopefully make a lot of money by getting in early --or could, until fairly recently-- and so the "experts" were deemed worth listening to... but I digress.)

The notion of the "Cult of the Expert" does not extend beyond the tech world. The rest of the community doesn't have experts they turn to, but rather, as you point out, friends. Since they're not on twitter to self-promote but rather to hang out, they really don't care much what someone outside that circle says.

Thanks for carrying the flag some on this.

Mack Collier said...

Great comments, guys. Alan I think that's an interesting point about the SV crowd, and probably a lot to that. One of the thinks that I *hated* when I started blogging was how the same small group of A-Listers seemed to laud/promote/link to only others in their circle. So there really was something to the idea of 'gatekeepers', since at that time few were on MySpace/Facebook, and YouTube/Twitter were barely on anyone's radar.

So I went out of my way to read/look for/link to people that were creating really GREAT content, but that had the mindset of sharing and being part of a larger community, not of self-promoting themselves and their friends in their A-Lister circle. I learned early on that if an idea gets circulated around even a small circle, it can generate impressive momentum in a very short time. Other sites such as Twitter have simply accelerated this.

The best case-study for this? The Z-List. It was purposely started by linking to 5 blogs that all had (in late 2006) less than 50 links each, and it spread like wildfire almost overnight. Mostly on the backs of smaller blogs.

I've never been a fan of ppl that think that ideas and influence should be siloed.

Michael said...

I favorited your Tweet about this, Mack. As others have said, great point.

Essentially, it's about quality much more so than quantity. As you said, everyone has a network. The key to have content that others want to promote, RT, comment on, link to, etc. -- no matter the size of their network.

jbrinkman said...

This post misses the intent of the original request which was to have a richer search capability for twitter. It was never about "authority" per se, as Loic has point out many times, but about having access to do searches based on more meta-data than what it currently available. Loic felt that follower count would be a useful metric for him, however, to argue over the usefulness of this one metric misses the bigger picture that search in general needs to be richer.

peterkim said...

Here's a challenge to take your thinking further, if you're up for it...

Earlier, you wrote about the need to monetize social media. The points you highlight in the post reflect mainstream media thinking - which correlate with reach and traditional ad placement.

How do we reconcile the two?

Steve Woodruff said...

@peterkim - perhaps Mack is giving a hint here on a new approach to the term "reach" - not sheer numbers of subscribers per se, but quality/value which enables a person to reach a broader audience through others. The obvious downside - how do you quantify THAT?? Sigh...

jon burg said...

Great post! It's all about relevance. We're back to old school communications theory - timely, relevant and compelling.

abf said...

@peterkim and @swoodruff As far as monetizing, it seems like the keyword ads/click-through model would work because it measures action taken/conversion.

The trick for the social media strategist would be to compel the client to reach the influencers whom Mack describes, those who may have fewer followers but whose relationship with their followers is deeper and more trust-based.

The client would be clamoring to get the link out to those with 5,000+ followers and there might be a few of those on the list, but social media strategists are always trying to explain the difference between the value of lots of eyeballs versus the value of relationships, so what is new here?


Paul Chaney said...

Here's some French for you Mack, Touche! If there is a silver lining to this tired, long-standing debate it is that it's incited a discussion that needs to be had. We need to put this baby to bed.

Great insights as always. When it comes to a deep, granular level of understanding about social media you, sir, epitomize the very meaning of authority.

Mack Collier said...

Pete remember this all got started because Loic said he wanted to be able to see who was talking about his company, but he wanted to be able to rank results by 'authority', which he deemed to be a high # of followers. His thinking seemed to be that he needed to focus on what is being said by the people with a high number of followers only.

MY stance is that a company needs to know what ALL customers are saying about them online. You can't assume that there is a cutoff point where attention is 'deserved', and if you fall below that point, you don't need to pay attention. We have all seen how quickly and easily information moves through Twitter, so it is foolhardy indeed to assume that we can ignore feedback from some people, because they only have 50 followers. If one of those 50 followers is Chris Brogan, and he decides to RT that message, then the reach just increased exponentially.

Abf, I think the 'trick' is for the social media strategist to teach their clients to respect ALL feedback from ALL customers online.

Jason Cohen said...

Do you think this argument holds true only for Twitter or for other sharing sites as well?

For example, I've had blog posts go up on places like HackerNews, Sphinn, or even Reddit resulting in many thousands of people visiting my site. These are examples of central-hub-reaching-thousands rather than a loosely connected network where the message is bouncing around as in your Twitter example.

Also it seems to me that although the effect you write about eloquently is undeniably true, wouldn't you have to compare this result to what would happen if someone with a massive Twitter following twitted about you?

However, as an argument in your favor, my general experience is that getting blasted by a general site doesn't lead to a massive increase in subscribers. That would imply they are empty eyeballs, which isn't that interesting in the final analysis. What was your subscriber bump with the 500 Twitter visitors? I find mine is around 0.5% with the big sites, maybe more like 1-2% if the site is more targeted to my content (e.g. HackerNews, Sphinn).

In any case, thanks for a terrific, well-thought-out post, and I agree that in the end the best thing to do is have high-quality, compelling content.

Mack Collier said...

Jason good question, but some additional context needs to be considered.

For example, let's say Chris Brogan tweets a link to my post. Now on surface, this is a no-brainer, he just sent out that tweet to about 30K people. So I should and will get a traffic spike.

But there's two important issues to consider:

1 - What was the context of his RT? Did he simply say 'New post on social media by Mack', or 'Great post on SM that has me thinking'? The context of the RT matters, and to Chris' credit, he does a great job of explaining to his followers why he is sharing the link.

2 - How often is Chris tweeting? Sometimes Chris can post new links almost by the minute. If he does, someone might miss my link because they were checking the previous one, and by the time they got back, he had posted 2 new links, and they skipped mine.

I've seen this blog get hammered by a tweet from Chris, and I've seen it get flooded with traffic like it did a few days ago. Not saying that a tweet from a Twitter user with large following isn't important, because it obviously is very much so. But we shouldn't assume that tweets/RTs from those with 'smaller' followings should be ignored.

Michelle Kostya said...

Another point... some folks with thousands of followers seem to be "robots" managing to get thousands of followers simply by the chance that a lot of people auto-follow. These "robots" are just tweeting URL or sales promotions. They likely don't have a lot of authority...or influence.
If someone I follow consistently promotes good stuff - I will check out what they are talking about. No matter if they are followed by 10 or 1000 people!

Toma Bonciu - SEO Services said...

Hi Mack,

I think that keeping you followers active(I have an article on that on my blog) helps a lot in getting traffic just by using your own twitts (no RT).

RT doesn't always happens to me and I have to rely only on what I twitt. That is why I try to interact with as many of my followers as possible as often as possible. I try to get as many people as I can used to talk to me so that when I send a link they will react.

Daria Steigman said...

Hi Mack,

A terrific post about what "influential" really means. Yes, it's all about context.

I'd like to add one last point about influence: it's also about the quality of the content behind the link. If you hadn't written a good post to begin with, no one would have re-tweeted.

So congrats on another on-point blog post.

Happy New Year!


Eamon said...

If the post has good quality, original content it will get twittered / stumbleuponed (thanks Twitter and StumbleUpon for the traffic ..).

Sonny Gill said...

Thank you, Mack!

The whole authority talk is ridiculous. To consider a number (followers) gives a person authority is probably the craziest thing I've heard. I've followed many people that don't have a huge base but saw that they provided great value to that small network.

Every person and their community provides value in their own right and that's not going to be determined by a number and sorting your followers - it's unique to each individual/community.

Doug Haslam said...

Mack- you have also hit upon a PR industry problem I have been puzzling for a few years now-- how do we figure out who the "influencers" are? I believe in influencers, I just don;t believe we necessarily know who they are. The traffic drivers can be people we've never heard of, but who strike a chord in a certain number of people with the right thing at the right time for the right people (I think Duke Ellington was fond of a phrase like that-- it worked for him).

Meg said...

It's amazing the things we obsess about that most of the world will never even touch on. Puts it into perspective rather sharply.

Beth Harte said...

Amen Mack! Authority is crazy talk. Loic who?! ;-)

Here's my theory, when someone has a smaller community on Twitter, something they or someone else tweets stays around longer and they have time to read and react to it.

The more people you follow, the more you miss. I have shared lots of great posts with people who are new to Twitter and they always see them and say thanks.

As for monetization, I go out of my way not to click on ads of blogs.'s someone I know, trust and know that my clicking through will eventually help them out. So, I would think that is a quality click based on a relationship. And perhaps it would be quantifiable by how many visits I make and how many comments I leave. Just my two cents...without a CRM system and lots of staff, I would suspect it would be hard to track.

Alan Wolk said...

Agreed Beth.

This whole conversation is completely beside the point.

Again, the notion of "influencers" is a Silicon Valley creation that's made itself felt in the world of self-employed consultants who use a "I'll-scratch-your-back, you'll-scratch-mine" series of retweet chains to drive traffic to their blog posts.

Do any of you honestly think that the average person is going to use Twitter in this manner? That they are going to be looking for "valuable links about how to use social media?" Or are they going to be looking for the next funny video from their college roommate Bob who always finds funny videos, but whose Twitter "family" is limited to the 50 or so real-life friends he knows who are also on Twitter.

The inability of so many to see outside the bubble is fascinating.

Katbron said...

Makes sense and I always wondered why Twitter folks crave quanity over quality. For me, I love the funny tweets, the hilarious videos, the personal twitpix. I'm seeking "social media" and it's two-way conversation not messages blown out to me. If I wanted that, I'd watch television commercials.

Sherry Kerr said...

Mack, my thoughts exactly. As a PR person in a niche industry where I know which writers produce and which ones don't, I've always given attention to what others considered B-listers. I'll take the guy any day who writes for 10 small mags and covers my clients in all of them over the A-lister who writes for one and has agencies beating his door down. I think it's a fair comparison to the Twitterverse.