By Patrick Thoburn, Co-founder, Matchstick

At a recent event held by Cision Canada called “Social Media Ref: The Changing Nature of Influence”, I told the tale (maybe apocryphal) of Robert Scoble and Quora that is the holy grail of Influencer marketing: a positive, word of mouth recommendation that scales and has a measurable impact on the brand’s business.

As a direct result of Scoble’s blog posting on December 26, 2010, registrations for Quora quadrupled in days, establishing it as one of the most important technology stories of 2011.

The “Scoble Effect” shows the business impact an Influencer can have when he possesses both category authority, and a large audience.

However, for all the time and money invested by marketers in Influencer marketing this kind of result is all too rare.

In the race toward Influencers with big audience numbers, we forget that there often is a disconnect between an Influencer’s ability to distribute content widely because of large number of followers, and her or his ability to drive results for a company. While audience size matters, it doesn’t matter as much as authority.

Influencer audience size matters

The promise of the Cluetrain Manifesto is that each of us with access to the Internet and a Twitter or Facebook account has an equal ability to influence with the content we publish.

The reality today is that the playing field is not very flat. Certain influential individuals have emerged online in the past several years. The Internet is not the meritocracy of content some dream it to be. Robert Scoble has 300,000 Twitter followers because he has a long track record of producing quality, shareable content, which in turn begets new followers. In this way, large audience size is a reliable indicator of the production of high-quality content.

Furthermore, there is social proof of the value of Robert Scoble’s content in the number of his followers, indicating that his content is high-quality simply because many people can be assumed to have viewed it. (The concept of social proof – whereby large groups of people conform to the behaviour of others in socially ambiguous situations – is explored in detail by Mark W. Schaefer in his excellent book, Return on Influence.)

Authority matters more

So, should a brand simply identify and partner with Influencers with 300,000 followers or more?

There is a limit to the importance of audience size, and that limit is it should never outweigh the value placed on an Influencer’s authority.

What does authority mean in the context of online influence? It’s the ability to shape the opinions of others, to affect their decisions, and in the context of brands, to influence purchase intent or even sales.

Authority tends to be category-specific. Examples abound of high-reaching Influencers who tweet or blog about a product or brand resulting in little business impact because the category is outside the scope of their authority.

Robert Scoble is a major authority in technology, one of the most popular topics on the social web, and he has a large audience. He is the complete package. In every micro-category on the Internet there are similar authorities, often with smaller audiences. For example, in the plus-size fashion category in Canada, Matchstick connected one of our clients, a plus-size fashion retailer, with an Influencer who is authoritative on plus-size fashion.@CurvyCdn has just 1,400 Twitter followers; however, her partnership with the brand has led to a sustained, productive business relationship.

How authority can be measured is the subject for another posting. In the meantime, the lesson for brands is to be open to discovering influence that does not start with a large audience size. Big numbers are seducing, but do not mistake someone’s ability to share content widely for the ability to drive results for a company.

 Original article published on Matchstick’s blog. 

Patrick Thoburn is Co-Founder of Matchstick, an independent social media marketing agency based in Toronto.

Since 2001 Matchstick has designed and executed programs for clients including Microsoft, L’Oréal, Beam, Starbucks, Chrysler and others. Matchstick has won awards internationally including the Diageo Smirnoff Double Eagle Award, the Chrysler Jeep International Marketing Council Best Practice award, the Media Innovation Award, and the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Best Demonstration of ROI Award. Patrick has been quoted and Matchstick’s work has been featured in media including Time, CBC Television, CTV, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, National Post, Marketing Magazine, Strategy Magazine, and in Emanuel Rosen’s bestselling book The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited.

Patrick is past Co-Chair of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Member Ethics Advisory Panel. Prior to Matchstick Patrick was Director of Research at Toronto based Youth Culture. He is a lawyer by training. He was named one of Canada’s most influential marketers on Marketing Magazine’s Power 100 List.

About Patrick Thoburn

Patrick has more than a decade of consumer marketing industry experience, most of it with leading and emerging platforms in digital and social media. Strengths in strategy, creativity, and entrepreneurial leadership.

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