Duncan J Watts recently published a study debunking the role of influencers in synthetic virtual worlds, then debunking them again by showing how ads spread through the online world. I think the problems with the thesis are
- machines do not have emotions
- most of the people spreading the ideas in his studies did not have a large potential gain as a potential outcome of sharing the idea
- we live in a time of such an abundance of information that information / knowledge workers need to trust filters
- some filters have publicly available stats showing 10,000's of people trust and follow them
- the easiest way to target influencers is not through ads, but through content which gets exposure in some of those trusted filters...if your idea starts in an ad box you already tuned out many influencers
The Fast Company article covering the research goes on to state the following
As Watts points out, viral thinkers analyze trends after they've broken out. "They start with an existing trend, like Hush Puppies, and they go backward until they've identified the people who did it first, and then they go, 'Okay, these are the Influentials!'" But who's to say those aren't just Watts's accidental Influentials, random smokers who walked, unwittingly, into a dry forest?
In some cases that might be true, but online you can learn communities and individuals well enough to create content targeted around their needs / wants / passions / biases / identities. You can predict the viability future ideas with some degree of accuracy. And there is so much data to study that virtually anyone can pick up the patterns and start spreading ideas within a few months.
I have changed a few words in a blog post to change the angle of it to target certain individuals. My success rate with getting a mention from the specific personality or person I was targeting is much too high to be an anomaly. Not only have I taken past ideas from other markets and applied it to my market, but I have taken some fundamental social and psychological principals and value related ideas, applied them to markets I know almost nothing about (and have no influence in), and still over half of those linkbait ideas go viral.
And once you give an idea exposure on a leading channel or two (not as an ad but as editorial) you display social proof of value and start the cumulative advantage process.
I am not trying to toot my own horn. Just trying to write from experience rather than theory. Some people, like Andy Hagans, are way better at launching linkbait than I am. The reason that linkbait is so powerful is that it can be so targeted, and it targets the foundation of the web's value system, which typically does not look like an ad - the link.
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