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Influencers Are Real, But they’re Not Always Who You Expect

Posted By Guest Blogger 22nd of August 2011 Social Media 0 Comments

This guest post is by Dan Zarella of of

I find myself in the quantity of followers versus quality of followers debate quite a bit. And one of the fundamental questions of that argument is the concept of influencers. There are clearly some social media users who have more reach and more influence than others, and it is obviously a good thing to have as many of them following you as possible.

Content sharing frequency

Content sharing frequency


A few years ago, when Twitter had just launched and was used primarily by social media geeks, I did a survey. I asked takers how often then shared content with their friends. I found that people who were on Twitter tended to share content more frequently. Those bleeding edge social media users were clearly more influential. For many mainstream markets, whose customer bases aren’t full of hardcore social media users, the percentage of the audience who is on social media (especially the newer platforms) tends to be more influential and connected.

Great tools like Klout and Twitter Grader exist to help you identify influential users, but it becomes tricky and often expensive in terms of time and resources to scale your reach by targeting individual, high-value users.

Death hoax timeline

Death hoax timeline


On the flip side of the coin is the concept of contextual influence. A few months ago there was a death hoax about Nelson Mandela on Twitter. A few Blackberry messenger spam was sent to a number of South African people one morning informing them that Mandela had died. One user, @lebolukewarm, tweeted the phrase “RIP Nelson Mandela” and got around 70 retweets. The phrase then began to trend worldwide on Twitter and received mainstream media coverage.

Lebolukewarm isn’t traditionally influential. He had less than 1,000 followers when the hoax started. He would never show up on any Klout report. It’s nearly impossible to specifically target this kind of influencer, he was just in the right place at the right time. The same was true for many of the users who got tons of ReTweets about Osama Bin Ladin’s capture.

The only way to optimize for having influencers like Lebo following you is to cast a wide net. Since you can’t target users like him, you can only hope to get a lot of followers, thereby increasing the probability that someone like him is following you.

Dan Zarrella is the award-winning social media scientist at HubSpot and host of the upcoming webinar: The Science of Social Media on August 23rd at 2PM ET.

About Guest Blogger
This post was written by a guest contributor. Please see their details in the post above.
  • Hmmm…interesting post. Why must quantity and quality be mutually exclusive? Targeting high profile influencers doesn’t necessarily preclude a quantity-based approach, does it?

  • I think influencers are real, but you must search them

  • dan

    I think you need to consider the power of the content being tweeted. The examples quoted are both have very grabbing headlines which is a big part of the spread equation.

    Spread = catchiness of content x relavence to followers x number of followers

    I think the hardest part is spotting good stories that can go viral….there needs to be funnel and process for vetting potential stories worth sharing with followers to achieve best idea spread. There is a blog post required on this topic ;)

  • True influence has very little to do with getting people to sacrifice a split second of their time to click a RT button. Get back to me when all the shiny tools can measure real influence — changing people’s minds on important issues, reaffirming existing beliefs (for better or worse), and getting people to take action that actually involves some commitment on their part.

    That’s the kind of influence that matters and that’s worth aspiring to — not follow-spamming to up number counts so social media tools tout your “influence” because your RTs reach X number of lemmings (or robo-tribes) that mindlessly do the same. And let’s face it. That’s a huge part of the current “influence” game.

    • Rebecca Denison

      Well put, Jenn!

  • To be honest, I have no idea what this means. There are people out there who can be influencers too? People are influencers all the time and you have to attract everyone? People change their mind a lot and we should be looking to be a catalyst? I mean surely all of that is true and hard to measure. Doesn’t that put this sort of information up their with knowing the exact moment prior to someone making a purchasing decision?

  • Finding the right people who are interested in my content is important to me. I would rather have 500 loyal than 5000 random folks who really don’t care.

  • “The only way to optimize for having influencers like Lebo following you is to cast a wide net. Since you can’t target users like him, you can only hope to get a lot of followers, thereby increasing the probability that someone like him is following you.”

    Doesn’t that sound a lot like mass marketing? Have we come full circle?

  • Hi,

    I agree with the school of thought which says “Quantity and Quality.”

    Too often we peg ourselves in, thinking you can only have one or the other. Influencers have both.

    As for the death hoax, there’s a Universal force called “karma” which deals with these rascals. Any person who generates that time of influence from a negative place is quickly dealt with in cosmic court.

    Thanks for sharing your insight Dan!


  • I realize that if we tweet fresh/ original content, it will attract more followers.

  • What’s wrong with quantity if there’s also a hardcore of quality?

  • Being followed by plenty of influencers who like the stuff you write AND share it is indeed valuable. But I think it’s important to remember that communication is a two way street. If you are using twitter to communicate with current or potential customers don’t forget to listen and be influenced by them too – after all if you can provide what they are really interested in they’ll appreciate your marketing messages that much more!

  • I have always favored Quality over Quantity. But sometimes people with big numbers Win because, as the Richer gets richer, Bigger gets bigger!!

  • That’s a fascinating look at what’s an utterly random phenomenon, but so goes life. You never know which kid in the class grows up to be the next world leader, for example. Nor do you know that the girl living just around the corner when you were 3 becomes the mother of your children, which is my story.

    It goes to show you, though, that you ought to treat people with some level of dignity even in social media. In the example above it may not have mattered – but obviously @Lebolukewarm found someone worth following, and wound up making history. (Writ small.)

  • Dan,
    I believe finding right community and write attractive articles to make them interesting is the key. That surely works. Thanks for sharing the post – Manickam

  • Hi Dan,

    Good post. Agree that quality always trumps quantity in terms of Twitter followers. Real people, real influencial people are more valuable than tonnage. The tools to measure, btw, are amazing.

  • I’d prefer quality over quantity any day.

  • Cheers Dan, will check out Klout and Twitter Grader!

  • Quality over quantity for me too. But decent quality with a lot of quantity always wins.

  • I believe that you choose people who will be of influence to you, sometimes they are not all that helpful to us.

    – Jack Leak


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