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Calculating Influence

Rebecca Weeks
Calculating Influence Rebecca Weeks

BERKELEY, CA -- As traditional media spenders are beginning to realize the potential of social media's influence, pressure is building for the development of an effective set of metrics. Leading social media and blogging proponents debated this topic during the "Metrics of Influence" panel at last Friday's BlogOn conference at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.


Panelists and attendees agreed that audience size and page views are not a fair measure of a blog's true influence. The composition of the audience and the way the blog reaches that audience are far different from traditional media and thus, require a new set of metrics.


"I've gone from wanting a readership of tens of thousands to wanting a readership of 10. The trick is to reach the right 10," said Mena Trott, co-founder of Six Apart, Inc., publisher of MovableType


Because the heart of social media is in the aggregation and amplification of community expression, metrics based on the strength of the message and quality of the receiver are more valid.


As technology consultant Shel Israel told the audience, "While traditional media establishes a passive, static relationship between author and reader, the social media provide true interactive, passionate exchanges of information and ideas."


Yet neither businesses nor blogs have reached consistency in the measurement of social media's power, or the authority and influence of a single person in an online community.


"Influence, now moving from big media to the edges, is created by people who want to be heard, not make money," said JD Lasica, principal and founder of Open Media Consulting Group.


Exactly how influence is defined depends on who you ask. To some it means power and impact, to others manipulation and authority. Bloggers convey their influence in various ways, including personal recommendations, job status, in-bound links, posting history and context.


David Sifry is on a mission to develop his own metric of influence. As founder and CEO of Technorati, he created the vision and architecture for the Blogosphere's leading index and search engine. With a database of 3.2 million bloggers, the company uses a metric of linking -- a "vote" for attention -- to understand a blogging site's influence. A-list bloggers, those considered to have the most influence, move to the top of Technorati's list based on the blogger's number of in-bound links.


However, Sifry told the BlogOn audience that this concept is flawed.


"Only looking at the number of in-bound links is too blunt. We need a measure of relative authority," Sifry said. "We're closely watching velocity -- the change in the number of a blogger's links in one hour divided by the blogger's total number of links."


Sifry is also hoping to improve Technorati: "I follow on a daily basis both negative and positive discussions about Technorati. Critics can become your best teachers."


If bloggers are known as teachers, they're also branded as risk-takers. "The interesting concept of influence is that people risk their social capital by endorsing something," said Ross Mayfield, founder and CEO of enterprise social software provider SocialText.


Endorsement is exactly what eBay uses as an effective metric of individual influence.


"At eBay, we have two metrics of influence. The first is user feedback based on transactions, since it's what builds trust in the community. Over 70 percent of our users leave feedback because they know it will elicit a high degree of trust," said Shripriya Mahesh, senior director of product strategy at eBay. "The second metric is the opinion of our 'voices' groups -- communities of 10 users each who volunteer their perspective on new eBay product ideas."


Mahesh, who's responsible for evaluating emerging technologies and trends such as social networking and blogging, tries to balance the voices groups across users' levels of experience (beginner and advanced). Members of these voices groups are so passionate about improving eBay that they don't mind not being compensated for the amount of time they give the company while in the corporate headquarters.


If eBay's user feedback is such an effective metric, shouldn't it be transferred to other communities, someone asked.


"No, we don't want feedback to lose value when it moves outside of where it was first created," Mahesh said. On a separate panel at the BlogOn conference, a panelist said that eBay is not developing new social networking services because it wants to maintain the company's elevated reputation within its tight-knit community, rather than allowing users to go "outside and around it."


Mark Finnern, collaboration area manager at SAP Developer Network, shared an anecdote in which his company planned to award a Sun blogger with a free lunch with SAP's CEO. However, the winner didn't care about going to lunch with the CEO and wanted instead to dine with the leading SAP blogger.


Because of the journaling, and thus lengthy, nature of blogs, they tend to maintain reader attention for longer periods of time on average compared to readers of most commercial Web sites.


"I believe a measure of stickiness should be developed to determine a blog's weighted average amount of attention from readers," Lasica said.


One audience member asked, "Does a third party always have to be involved in measuring a person's influence?" No panelist had an answer.


The metrics discussed were by no means an exhaustive list. Considering that blog readers develop a deep affinity for bloggers and their opinions, maybe the industry needs a metric for loyalty.


One thing the panelists did agree on is that this will be a continuing discussion as the blog world evolves.

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