Does High Twitter Follower Count indicate Thought Leadership? Not SO much!

Posted: May 24, 2011 in SOsays!
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

There’s considerable ongoing discussion of influence — how to get it, work it and hold onto it — underway in the social universe. This intense interest has resulted in a wide variety of FREE tools people can use to track their/your social influence and thought leadership. These tools include Klout, Twitter Grader and Twitaholic, to name only a few. In the past year, the reliance on follower count, as a prime measure of influence has lost credibility, with a pronounced shift to a more considered evaluation based on a concoction of mystery analytics and far-reaching connections.

Klout, currently the most popular and buzzed about industry standard for rating social media influence is a highly-debated tool that measures thought leadership and engagement by its own secret analytics and gives you a score based on more than 35 variables including retweets, followers, engagement and the quality of the people following and engaging with you. Klout scores range from 1 to 100, with higher scores representing a wider and stronger sphere of influence.

Despite Klout’s newfound klout, when it comes to measuring “influence,” one very influential and respected word of mouth agency, Likeable Media, asserts that thought leadership can indeed be measured by numbers: specifically, your number of Twitter followers.

This begs the question: Is follower count the best way to prove social media competence and authority?

“I was extremely surprised, given the way social media measurement is evolving, to see a highly respected, early adopter like Dave Kerpen, a founder of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Organization and CEO of Likeable Media, announcing an employee competition, challenging his staff to grow their Twitter followers to prove their thought leadership, based on follower count,” says Strategic Objectives president Deborah Weinstein, who is herself hyper-active on Twitter. (Follow her @DebWeinstein)

“There’s been so much time and energy spent discussing social media measurement and its impact — how to create it, how to report it to clients, how to prove its value and ROI — over the last year,” Deborah continues. “I was astonished to see a leader like Dave reverting to the most basic and rudimentary measure, follower count, to prove the influence of his crew.”

“I simply had to go to our team — who do the same kind of work and seek the same kind of impact, results and influence for our clients — to ask their opinion and advice as to whether Strategic Objectives should do something similar,” she says.

At the end of the day, our SO Engagement team agrees, it’s important for our staff to be socially engaged because it’s what we do. As to whether follower numbers count? Our bottom line advice is that it’s preferable to judge thought leadership based on social sphere, influence, engagement and community participation. Someone with only 200 followers can have major influence in an online community through authentic engagement, and play a key and valued role in aligning and affiliating with your brand.

 “I question whether ‘getting the most followers’ is the way to really engage a community and position yourself as a Twitter expert,” says @SO_pr Account Manager Monika Rola, who adds that measurement by followers is a flawed process because it’s too easily gamed. “We can all grow numbers with the help of Tweet Adder software. If someone wants to be underhanded, they can even pay companies to find followers for them.” 

Andrew Stewart our @SO_pr Community Manager agrees, “Everyone starts off with one follower. It’s easy to get followers; it’s keeping them that’s the hard part. Judging anyone or anything, prima facie, can speak more to your flippant need for quick answers than real influence,” he says.

Why Numbers Lie (No S*#t, Sherlock!)

It is our opinion that setting measures on social media success should match up to your goal, strategy and tactics. Looking at follower count is as effective as following the newspaper horoscope to guide your daily decision-making. Measuring and reporting ROI by follower and fan count, rather than context, audience demographics, etc. is all too common in the agency world.

A contact of ours recently shared a twitter influenced list with us to review. It comprised approximately 150 Toronto Twitter accounts with the highest number of followers. We vetted the list through our usual filters to make sure it was totally targeted and were totally surprised.

After filtering out the spammers, corporate accounts (no relevance to our campaign) and accounts which had gamed the system by obviously buying followers (few tweets, thousands of followers), we were left with approx 40 real people with any real influence. Of that 40, only a handful would have been interested in engaging with our story.

Don’t get us wrong — we do believe a large and engaged audience is hugely important in both social and traditional media. However, we urge you to look beyond the numbers to find the context behind the numbers. Be curious, Sherlock Holmes! Investigate.  Don’t be lazy.

Measuring Leadership: beyond the numbers

We believe that measuring sector and category thought leadership should extend way beyond Twitter to the work that you do and the results you achieve. It should include IRL speaking engagements, Twitter lists, blog posts and articles published in major media outlets and so much more. You can have as many engaged followers as you want, but if you’re going for the title, Thought Leader, your soap box needs to be prominent in more places than Twitter and your ideas should be thought-provoking and original.

Community manager Andrew Stewart agrees, “Thought leadership is all about perspective. These days original thought is hard to come by and an original point-of-view is rare and very refreshing. You’ve delivered genuine insight if you can make me see something in a new light or from a new vantage point,” he says.

So how do you cut through the social noise, echo chamber and back-patting to be deemed an authoritative thought leader?

Andrew recommends listening and observing to discover the real influencers who matter most to you, “If you see that someone asks questions but doesn’t follow up with answers, it may just mean no one’s really connecting with them. It’s no wonder!” – “If we must follow numbers, lets look at twitter lists. It takes effort, reasoning, thought and categorization to add someone to a list so why not measure that as a standard of real influence.”

Measuring Measurement

Like the “if a tree falls in a forest does anyone hear” metaphor … I like to say If a tweet goes unretweeted, did that tweet ever exist? Retweets are but one small way to measure social success and influence beyond follower numbers. In fact, we recommend a mix of measures including:

–          Followers

–          Retweets

–          Sentiment

–          Clicks (links)

–          Views (of image or video)

–          Unique visits

–          Comments

–          Likes

–          Lists

–          Interaction

–          Sales

–          Buzz and trending topics

The list goes on and on, but we’re sure you get the point. There are also several, useful PAID services to help measure thought and brand leadership, including Sysomos and Radian6.

Andrew also suggests looking at how many lists someone appears on, “Lists are a good start if you want quantifiable measurement. Tools like Klout are also starting to show some traction in proving influence.”

I’ll conclude now with some wise words from our socially-savvy president, Deborah Weinstein: “Social media has become the wild, wild west of marketing with a multitude of disciplines jostling with each other to own the space; and a plethora of self-styled gurus hawking their wares to ill-informed, but hopeful clients, businesses and brands. Make sure to look beyond the hype to fact-based analytics and research when recruiting a marketer to promote your brand and business. True thought leaders will stand out based on their actions and deeds,” says Deborah.

There’s no question there is a need to establish and measure new high standards for “influence” and “thought leadership.” In the meantime we urge smart marketers to resist the temptation of buying into the big social numbers game, as digital budgets begin to rock and rule in the new economy.

Following on this theme of social media measurement, we’ll take a more analytical look at follower counts next week.


  1. CK says:

    Excellent post and intriguing subject of debate/analysis. Here’s my $.02 having been on twitter since its vintage days (vintage = at least a year before Ashton made it all hip to tweet).

    While many times quantity matters (if I’m a B2C soda pop brand I need A LOT of customers as my company is volume-based), many times it does not and the quality of the customer/prospect/colleague/follower is what matters.

    For instance, let’s take the industry of life sciences from the B2B standpoint (not the B2C standpoint of the companies selling the drugs to millions of consumers but the B2B vendors targeting those billion-dollar companies). The irony here? While that particular industry is one of the BIGGEST revenue-wise… it’s actually made up of a very small universe of 50 “big pharma” companies. My point? If I’m a vendor in life sciences would I rather have 5000 twitter followers that aren’t really in my target audience… or 50 loyal twitter followers from big pharma that are my exact audience and directly impact (and, um, influence!) the success of my company and livelihoods of my employees?

    Net net: Tools like Klout can tell me influence by sheer number of followers, sure. But what I seek is not how influential I am over them but how influential each follower is to me, both my business and my ongoing professional growth.

    Shout out: CK loves all her twitter followers (and those she follows) as she learns greatly and, ergo, is INFLUENCED BY THEM every single day. Y’all rock 🙂

  2. Sean Ward says:

    I can see the short cut he was trying to take. Mr. Kerpin could probably make a reasonable assumption that his crew is busy doing their full time job and that their attention is on that set of values and priorities. Thus, his crew would not have the time or inclination to gain followers through any kind of scheme other than true engagement and actually being influential.

    But too bad that he’s teaching bad habits to his crew. I also noticed that everyone who works there has a “Verified Account” label on their profile – which is usually reserved for celebrities and people in the public eye to let the world know it’s the person’s actual account. He mentioned in the blog post that they have access to premium advertising features so that’s probably where they’re able to do it. So now that’s not about authenticity, it’s about status.

    I’m kind of expecting the pop-up window telling me I’m the millionth vistor to appear now that I’ve looked at their site a bit.

  3. 40deuce says:

    Great take on influence Melissa! It’s so true that the number of followers on Twitter someone has only says so much. Here at Sysomos we don’t really show influence, but instead we give people/blogs an “authority score”. This authority scored is complied differently for each different social network. A lot of them are some of the things you actually listed. For instance, on Twitter we take into account things like how often a person get @’d or RT’d among a bunch of other metrics. Things like that show their actual engagement levels and if a person gets RT’d a lot, there’s a good chance it’s because they have something great to say or content to share and that other people feel their stuff is so good they want to pass it along.
    I think a lot of companies could stand to read this post and learn a little more about influence. Not that I have anything against the Klout people, but I just don’t think they’re scores should be seen as the be-all and end-all in terms of influence.

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  4. @samfiorella says:

    Sheer number of Twitter followers (or Facebook Friends) are NOT an indicator of influence or even the potential for influence. Regardless of the business you are in.

    You can achieve large followings (as many who have large following have done) by using 3rd party, automated tools that follow a certain category of people. If they don’t follow back, the technology unfollows them and continues on.

    The reality is that few-to-no people or companies have regular conversations with the vast number of their followers and friends, WHICH IS REQUIRED to have any real influence or business value from the crowd.

    Case(s) in point:
    – I have 3600+ followers and a (current) Klout score of 67. Good by most standards by I probably only have sway over maybe a hundred people I connect with frequently.
    – Along with many of my friends, I’m one of 10 million+ people that are fans of Nutella on Facebook, yet a quick survey this afternoon revealed that none of us have had any direct contact with the them in months (although they post regularly) and none of us have purchaed the product in over 6 months.

    So what’s the value in sheer numbers? None – if you THEY don’t regularly communicate with you.


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