Should You Use Influencer Lists?

You’ve seen them before, influencer lists promising to deliver the names of the 100 Top Influencers for <insert trending new tech term here>. As a marketer, what are the best ways to use influencer lists? As an influencer, what does it really mean to be included on these lists?

Before I start, let me clarify that this post will focus on a B2B marketing perspective, and in particular B2B marketing for enterprise tech. Other marketing forms may not apply here.

This post got pretty long, but it’s important. TL;DR: What’s the history of influencer lists, who is making these lists, how are they compiled, a warning for influencers on these lists, and strategies for marketers when using these lists.

Why Do Influencer Lists Exist?

About thirteen years ago, social media really started to take off. People who really understood different technologies started blogging, creating videos online, and tweeting. Eventually, this labor finally started to be acknowledged as valuable by PR and traditional marketing (around 2010 or so).

The question for these traditonal keepers of the corporate message and reputation became: with all of these people creating content, who should we pay attention to? Should we brief these people? Can we ignore the annoying ones? Who is worthy of our time and attention? This last part is important because time and attention always come at a price.

In the very beginning people shared their RSS feeds on their blogs. If you really liked someone’s blog, you checked out their RSS feed. If that person was awesome, obviously who they liked to read was awesome as well. Sometimes it worked, sometimes you just ended up reading what the awesome person’s friends wrote.

By the time PR and traditional marketing decided to trust social media as a real information souce, no one was using RSS feeds anymore. So you had the perfect storm of internal organizations needing help to understand who was an influencer that they should trust, and having budget and initiatives to use social media to amplify their brands.

Who Publishes These Lists?

In the beginning, lists were driven by the influencers. This made the lists have an obvious credibility issue.

To get the answer on who publishes influencer lists these days, let’s go back to the history of social media in big companies. As PR and traditional marketing organizations started to get their arms around protecting their brands on social media, it quickly became apparent that they were going to need a platform to keep up with their brands across all types of social media. There was just too much data being created for one or two people to keep up with! An industry was born, and social media monitoring platforms were created to help firms keep an eye on what people were saying about their brands.

Since all the tweets, facebook posts, reddit tirades, and blog posts were being collected by these platforms, it was pretty easy to create methodologies to determine who was talking the most about any given subject. These tools assign different weights to things like affinity and sentiment, and when combined with frequency and a search term, lists of influencers can be created. This isn’t AI, it is pattern matching and sorting with human created weights. It’s math.

These days, the tools have evolved beyond monitoring tools. There are influencer marketing platforms to help PR and marketing organizations with their influencer marketing initiatives. If you see a “top 100 influencers in ….” list, there is a good chance that the company sharing the list is trying to sell a marketing team their influencer marketing program.

How Are These Lists Compiled?

Let’s take an Onalytica, a company that sells an influencer marketing platform (and training). I’m using them as an example because they are the most recent company with a big campaign to announce a Top 100 Cloud Influencers list. Those who made the 2020 list were more than happy to share Onalytica’s announcement tweet, which had a tracking code to the announcement page. To see the entire list you had to give up your information to Onalytica . Fair disclosure: folks who made this list are definitly cloud influencers.

There were obvious problems with the list. Many well-known influencers were missing. There were 9 women, and very few people of color. How was the list compiled?

According to the Onalytica announcement, their priority influence metric is what they call Topical Authority (reference). They come up with this by taking the amount and quality via influencer’s social engagement on Twitter. The quality portion of this weight is subjective and I didn’t see a definition for it. Next, they add in if the person has been referenced with the cloud terms used in the search other social platforms: Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Forums, Blogs, News and Tumblr content. More commentary on this below.

Search for Definitions

Here is Onalytica’s formula for determining the top influencers (as stated in the announcement blog post). Notice that critical definitions for qualitative parameters were not given.

  1. Resonance: Topical engagement
    It is not stated explicitly, but I believe this is related to reference. If so, this is how much an influencer posts and engages about “cloud” on Twitter.
  2. Relevance: Number of posts on topic, and % relevance – the proportion of their social content on the topic.
    The number of posts on the topic is quantitative. I have to wonder – does this include paid posts? The % relevance is problematic as well. If an influencers talks 75% about security, or devops, or programimng, and 25% cloud, then they would rank lower than other influencers, even if they are core to the community discussion.
  3. Reach: Number of followers
    This is a quantitative weight. This is problematic as well, it narrows the field and eliminates many real influencers.

Influencer Lists Are Made From Statistics

Y’all, this is plain ole math. These weights are determined by what the company has deemed influential and important to the definition of an influencer. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a place to start. But you need to figure out the math behind the process.

In the case of the Onalytica top 100 cloud influencers list, if someone isn’t active on Twitter they won’t make the top 100. Likewise if they aren’t being referenced from other social platforms, although it is not clear how this referencing is defined. Is it mentions? Is it links to their content out from others’ posts? Is it likes on their posts on these platforms? If you’re a marketer relying on tools like this, these are good questions to ask.

There is more info this report, which is behind another Onalytica lead gen form, and there are two calls to action (stuff they want you to do to be convinced to buy their tool) in the report itself. Here is how they describe the strategy they used for the top 100 cloud influencers (emphasis mine):

Onalytica sourced and analyzed over 200 Billion Posts from Twitter, Blogs, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn in order to identify key influencers such as journalists, subject matter experts, thought leaders, authors, academics and politicians that are influential on specific topics.
Influencers were then ranked by REACH, RESONANCE, RELEVANCE, REFERENCE to analyze which influencers are most relevant for brands to engage with. Using this methodology we identified 1,000 influencers relevant to the global market and segmented influencers into categories relevant to the cloud sector.
A network map was created identifying the top 100 engaged influencers across the topic of cloud. Through the network map we were able to analyze the scale of a brand’s reach into the influencer community through the number of interactions it had with influencers over the past year.

If you’re an influencer, you should understand this report is a marketing tool. If you’re a marketing professional, you should understand that these influencer lists are marketing tools that may or may not have relevance for your mission.

Strategies for Using Influencer Lists

So are these lists bad? No, they’re not, as long as you recognize them for what they are, and try to understand the math behind the results. Should you use an influencer list created by one of these influencer marketing platforms? It depends. If you are a small team, and you need to get your arms around a market for the first time, or you are prepping for a big launch into a new market, these lists can give you a head start. They aren’t bad, but they require evaluation.

You should know your market enough to ask some hard questions, especially what search terms are being used, and the math used to come up with results. Once you know that, it is also important pay particular attention to influencers that land on the list.

Seperate the Influencers into Different Categories

Are there employees on the list? They can help you vet the rest of the list. When I was doing this circa 2011, the lists always contained our biggest competitors, or influencers of those competitors. That wasn’t obvious to marketers who weren’t active in our community, but we knew immediately.

You also should be giving your internal influencers as much love as you give your external influencers. Community building starts in-house, you cannot build a strong external community if you don’t have a strong internal community.

Are competitors on the list? Don’t cater to them, obviously. But be sure to keep tabs on what they are saying, and to whom they are connected. Remember, competitors’ influencers are your influencers too.

Are partners on the list? Show them love! That is a sure way to stregnthen your ties, promote the work that is important to them.

Who is missing from the list? It is unacceptable to use one of these tools and accept a list that is not diverse. There are so many documented reasons that people will not be picked up on the basis of an algorithyms definiton of rach, resonance, relevance, or reference. These tools reinforce stereotypical echo chambers.

Question who is missing if everyone on the list looks the same. We all have an obligation to build a future that represents everyone.

This is Ultimately About Community

Finding your influencers is a community building excercise. These lists are a great way to take a temperature of who is talking about the topics your organization is working on, but you still need to be protective of how you choose to engage in these conversations.

You will miss your best influencers if you rely on these algorythms. A solid feedback loop from your biggest influencers really will make a better product, but you have to put in the work to find the right list for your product.

Finaly, you must to tend that list, sometimes water it, sometimes weed it, sometimes cut it back. Don’t just accept an influencer list, do the work to build real community.

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