By Mark Ralphs, Founding Partner, ralphs mcintosh & partners

Word of mouth marketing is underpinned by the notion of influence. Invite the right people. Speak to the right people. Get the right products in front of the right people. And they’ll spread the word and motivate action on your behalf.

Who are the right people?

So, wouldn’t it be great if you could easily identify the key influencers in a particular area. Or see how influential the person you’ve just met is? That way you’d always be able to invite the right people, right?

Even better, if you want to become an influencer yourself it would be just dandy to understand how to do it and measure your progress towards world domination. This is the promise of online influencer measurement services like Klout, PeerIndex and Twitter Grader. Even the Sunday Times has got into the act with the Social List.

Job done?

Well no. Influencer metrics are the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ of social media. They appeal to our vanity and desire for easy answers but end up leaving us naked. It is impossible to assign a useful algorithmic measurement to influence. Why? However sophisticated the algorithm:

“Klout uses over 35 variables on Facebook and Twitter to measure True Reach, Amplification Probability, and Network Score.” Influence is a variable concept that operates differently with people across different networks.

Influence is offline as well as online

Of course services like PeerIndex wouldn’t claim anything else; clearly stating that they measure online influence primarily across leading social networks: Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and Linkedin. But if you are planning strategy on the basis of online influence alone then you run into some major problems.

We are influenced by ‘strong ties’

This point is made brilliantly by Paul Adams of Facebook who writes:

“Much marketing activity in the last ten years has been focused on finding and seeding messages with ‘influentials’ — people who have a high number of connections, and are thought capable of setting off cascades of a message… We’re learning that most people aren’t influenced by people with these attributes. We’re learning that many of our decisions are made subconsciously (even when we think we made a conscious decision) and that the people who do have influence over our behavior are usually the people who are emotionally closest to us.”

Instinctively we know this to be true. We are more likely to be influenced by the people we know, love and trust than those we connect with on Twitter, however big and important they are. This does not mean that online networks aren’t an effective way of reaching people and propagating a message. It means that you are more likely to be successful if you focus on smaller networks made up of people with strong ties.

What is influence?

As well as ignoring the role of strong ties and smaller networks, online metrics fail when it comes to measuring real influence. Exerting influence isn’t about how likely people are to share your content or engage with you online. Exerting influence is about driving real world outcomes. So the greatest influence, whether on or offline, is exerted by those who encourage people to make real purchasing decisions or behaviour changes.

So how do you identify influencers?

This is, as it has always been, a much messier process than promised by influencer measurement services. Your approach will be different depending on what you are trying to achieve, with whom and it what context. You start by thinking about the desired outcome and work back from there.

You certainly shouldn’t rely on online influence if you want to maximise the success of your campaigns. This becomes apparent when you look at how brands like Audi are experimenting with targeting on the basis of the Klout Score: this year Audi was the first company to run a Super Bowl commercial featuring a Twitter hashtag. The company hired Klout to find more than 1,000 online influencers — but has no idea if the campaign actually helped sell more cars or not.

Is online influence meaningful?

OK, so it might be fun to watch your influencer score increase. But is it meaningful? All online influencer services clearly state how they work. If you follow the rules your score will increase, maybe not to 100 but it will go up. So if you play the game you’ll get a reward, not exactly a compelling test of true influence. Plus the more of us that play the game, higher everyone’s score and the less meaningful it becomes.

Focusing on your score will make you less interesting and creative

One of the joys of social media is that it enables us to share what we’re interested in and to learn new things from unexpected quarters. Back in October I wrote about 10 innovation tips from popular scientist, Steven Johnson. A big feature of his thinking is to use the power of random ideas and connections to inspire new thinking and creativity.

The most inspired and creative people are often great generalists, but influencer metrics encourage us to focus on a particular topic or subject area as a way of building influence. In a recent feature on Klout ‘starts, Dan Schwabel wrote:

“Your job is to narrow down your focus and blend your passion and expertise together so that you can be committed to your social media use over the long haul.”
This might be great for your Klout score but narrowing your focus is uninspiring and may reduce the passion and breadth of ideas that made you interesting in the first place.

Don’t let technology make you less human

Throughout history the polymath or Renaissance man has been widely celebrated, as Leon Battista Alberti once wrote, “a man can do all things if he will.”

At a party, the people who are fun to be with don’t just chew your ear off about one thing — what they do, the team they support, their kids! — they listen, they are interested in you, they talk intelligently on a range of topics. This is behaviour that should be valued and nurtured in social media, not forced into a cul-de-sac by an artificial focus on improving influencer score. If being yourself and sharing what interests and inspires you builds real influence then great. If not, so what?

This article originally appeared on Mark Ralphs website, Ralphs McIntosh & Partners. You can follow Mark on Twitter @markralphs