TOP OF THE HEAP Earning real influence in a connected world

In the world of social media, accumulating connections and followers is easy. But experts say the number of connections does not indicate influence. So how can you gain authority in the virtual realm? By applying real-world techniques that are tried and true.

Social networking is a rolling sea of advertisements, jokes, news and opinions. On fast-moving, short-message networks like Twitter the environment can seem chaotic, especially to the uninitiated. Look closer, however, and you’ll discern a hierarchy among users: those who are truly influential, and everyone else. One might assume influence in a social networking environment involves delivering your messages to the greatest possible numbers of contacts.

Not so, according to the report “Influence and Passivity in Social Media,”  by researchers from Cornell University, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and HP Labs. “For information to propagate in a network,” the researchers say, “individuals need to forward it to the other members, thus having to actively engage rather than passively read it and rarely act on it.”

In other words, to be truly influential, all those connections and followers need to read your posts. Share them. Act on them. If they don’t you’re making noise, but you’re not making a difference.


High-profile Twitter users such as teen pop sensation Justin Bieber, with more than 27 million followers, undoubtedly wield some kind of influence. When Bieber recently mentioned social ratings app Stamped in a tweet, for example, the surge in downloads shot the app straight into Apple’s Top 100 Free Apps. 

But as Stuart Dredge points out in a recent Guardian Technology blog, the affect was short lived. Within a few days the app slid out of the top 100, then out of the top 200. What’s more, AppData reports that only about 1,000 monthly active users actually connected the app to their Facebook account.
“The money aspect is persuasive, but the theory that pop stars can turn an app into a hit through social media alone is less convincing,” Dredge says.


Paul Sutton, head of social communications at UK PR consultancy Bottle, says that “influence in social networks has far more to do with the authority of your connections than the number of those connections. If you see one person with 5,000 Twitter followers but no top-level community involvement, and another person with 1,000 Twitter followers conversing with respected individuals in the niche, who would you see as more authoritative? If you forge relationships with high-quality, topic-specific community leaders, the numbers of connections will follow.”

Influence in any circle begins with a strong presence, a brand that makes others interested in you and what you have to say. Each of us creates a ‘Brand Me’ every day with our choices of the clothes we wear, the places we go and the products we consume, as well as with what we say and do. In fact, in a virtual community, where all you have are words, your content is your brand.

“First, you need to ask yourself why you’re doing social media and what you want to achieve,” says Len Romano, vice president of branding and design consultancy Ripe Inc. of Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. “For building influence on social networks, branding is important on every level. Whether you’re posting purely for your own purpose or for a global brand, it’s important to establish a voice, tone and viewpoint consistent with your audience’s expectations. It helps to know who you’re trying to attract and how you can give them good reason to follow or interact.”

The most influential social networkers are known for their content, whether it is news and expert commentary, early identification of trends, or using humor or inspiration. Decide which audiences you want to engage with and the type of content that will appeal to them. You might decide to post controversial opinions, news stories, jokes, quotes or expert commentary, or a mixture of these relating to a specialized subject.

“First, you need to ask yourself why you’re doing social media and what you want to achieve.”

Len Romano, Vice President, Ripe Inc.

Finding quality content to pass on is a good way to start, Sutton says, and builds loyalty among those contacts. “The key to posting great content is to read. Get to know who within your niche is writing insightful, useful and inspiring content and read their blogs voraciously. Use RSS readers, e-mail subscriptions, content aggregators, whatever works for you. By doing this you will learn what specific topics your community is interested in. You’ll be able to seek out more interesting people and you’ll start to develop your own ideas and thoughts around what others are discussing. You’ll begin to be able to post original content of your own.”


Building influence in social networking isn’t just about what you say. It’s also about how you say it. In this fiercely competitive and fast-moving virtual world, online etiquette is a powerful tool.

“It’s best practice in social media to understand that your intention is being watched by an audience,” says Jason Falls, named a Top 10 social media influencer by Forbes magazine in 2011. “So if you intend to sell more stuff and are disingenuous to what the community wants and needs (that is, if you’re just advertising or spamming), you’re not going to be successful in a social media market.”

Are you ready?

Social networking success involves a well thought-out strategy. Here are some key questions to ask before diving in:
• What do I want to achieve?
• With whom do I want to engage?
• What is my area of expertise?
• How am I going to communicate – through humor, news, debate or other means?
• What makes my content attractive?
• How can I make my followers’ lives better with the information I share?

The key, Falls says in his popular speaking engagements, is to put people, not products, at the center of your social networking. Your audience will accept that you have a product or service to promote, but only if the value you provide with your engaging content outweighs your self-interest.

Romano provides a helpful example. “Let’s say you own the GetFresh Bakery, and the core essence of your brand is locally sourced ingredients, always freshly baked. Your audience would benefit most from knowing when your next batch of delicious baked goods is coming out of the oven so they can be first in line. Informing your audience this way makes them feel special and glad that they’re following you on social media.

"There’s no quick win to becoming influential. It demands huge time and effort. Influence is not something that can be forced or gamed.”

Paul Sutton Head of Social Communications, Bottle

“Also, posting regular updates about where your ingredients come from provides a great benefit to the person following you who is also local-conscious. Being accessible (Twitter is great for this) and able to freely answer questions in a way the giant corporate bakeries can’t also provides a connection and a feeling of ownership to your audience and customer base.”

(Twitter is great for this) and able to freely answer questions in a way the giant corporate bakeries can’t also provides a connection and a feeling of ownership to your audience and customer base.”


While more businesses are establishing a presence on social networks, many have yet to make effective use of them as channels of influence. To succeed, businesses need to attract influential individuals and develop relationships with them, a process that requires sustained effort.

“One doesn’t just become influential, and what one person considers influential is different to what another does,” Sutton explains. “So even if you do achieve a level of influence among a certain group, it’s likely to be a small group. The hierarchy is in flux all the time.”

Romano argues that long-term influence requires a consistent and engaging brand and a commitment to serving your audience. “Brand-building creates a face, a voice and an attitude for your business that your customers will relate to on a gut level,” he says. “It’s a personal connection with customers that determines your position in the marketplace, that differentiates you from competition and builds trust, influence and long-term loyalty. It takes time and there are multiple pieces to the puzzle, but understanding and being able to easily articulate the core essence of your brand is the foundation on which all communication strategies must be built.

”Sutton agrees. “There’s no quick win to becoming influential,” he says. “It demands huge time and effort.  
Influence is not something that can be forced or gamed. You have to put in the ground work, be willing to learn and to be very, very patient.”


Social networks move fast, so it’s a good idea to reevaluate your strategy every few months:
• Am I seeing the results I want?
• What am I doing right, and what could I do better?
• Where do I want to go from here?

by Jacqui Griffiths Back to top