Influencer Model is flawed: Columbia Professor

duncanwatts Influencer Model is flawed: Columbia Professor

The long held concept in new media, that a small number of “influencers” have an undue influence over everyone else, is bunk, according to Professor Duncan Watts of Columbia University.

In a story at BrandWeek, Watt’s claims that most of the time buzz is spread by networks and a “critical mass of easily influenced people each of whom adopts, say, a look or brand after being exposed to a single adopting neighbor.”

The crux of Watt’s claim is that it is impossible to apply a uniform theory of influence upon individuals (as famously suggested in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point) as the way each individual demonstrates influence is different, and that data used to support theories of influence retrospectively is biased.

Watt’s told BrandWeek that his advice to a marketer wanting to start buzz would be:

First, they should focus less on who people influence and more on how people are influenced. It sounds like just the other side of the same coin, but the difference is important—identifying easily influenced people, and how they are influenced raises different questions, and requires different research design than looking for influentials. Second, they should also think more about networks, and network structure, rather than treating everyone as behaving independently. And third, they should move away from the idea that buzz can be engineered to achieve some prespecified outcome, and get better at measuring and reacting to buzz that arises naturally.

In itself it will be interesting to see if, or even how so-called influencers react to being told that their positions are bunk, after all the blogosphere has developed informal hierarchies of influence (such as A-List, B-List bloggers) and an argument that those at the top may not necessarily be as influential or powerful as others perceive them to be, or as they see themselves can only be interpreted as an attack of sorts on the status quo.

Food for thought.

Photo Credit: BrandWeek

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  1. I have an interest in hypnosis and it is a long-held belief that some people are more susceptible than others so perhaps there is a lot to this. We all know people who are suckers for peer pressure for example.

  2. The power of an “Influencer” depends on how the influenced relate to the influencer.

    For example, if the influencer is always at the leading edge of their field, people identify with them and they’ve always been right on track, that person will continue to have huge influence and people will follow.

    But lead people into the wilderness and abandon them just once – and watch the star power disappear.


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