Phil Willburn – Networked Leadership

There Are No Super Influencers: The Reality about Influencers from the world of Network Science

The influence of influencers is overhyped. We all want to believe that there are these super-hero influencers that can make dramatic changes to organizations, countries, and societies. The idea has been spread in pop-culture in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s the Tipping Point. Recent developments in Network Science have shown that our understanding of influencers – the super-connected individuals in our organizations and society – is more or less wrong.

So what is the truth behind influencers? The science is still figuring it out, but here is what we have learned so far.

It’s all about Micro-Influencers

The super-connected influencer do not exist, instead there are micro-influencers – those that have slightly more influence than the rest of the population influencing those around them to spread their ideas and messages about certain topics. (I would consider my friend Andrew a micro-influencer, he got our whole group of friends drinking high-quality craft beer after he himself jumped into the cult of American craft beer drinking).

We use to think that the human social network was constructed like our airport network (also called scale-free networks), there are hubs in which most traffic can get to most places, thus have huge influence on the flow of information.

The truth is that there are no Chicago O’Hare, or London Heathrow individuals.  Why? Because the human network does not work like the airport transportation network. The human capacity to manage relationships is finite. Unlike our major airports, we cannot just construct another terminal in ourselves to deal with more traffic. We have a limited number of relationships we can actively manage and the reach of our direct influence is limited by the relationships we manage.

The average number of friends people have on Facebook is around 200 – but there are some Facebook users who have 2000 friends (the max for an individual account), which is only 1 magnitude greater, not 10 or 20 times greater like we would expect if our human networks were more like airports: like the difference between Colorado Springs Airport traffic and Chicago O’Hare.

Ideas Become Viral Through Micro-Influencers

Things still go viral and our common sense would tell us that it is because some super-connected influencer made it go that way … but then we would be wrong. Common sense is so wrong when it comes to influencers (see Duncan’s new book for a full explanation of why). We cannot predict viralness from super-connectors. We can, however, narrow down on a group of people where the viral ideas are likely to come from. The best probability of making something go viral is to know who your micro-influencers are. And there are ways to find them, see my post on how to make leadership contagious.

Micro-influencers at best can cause diffusion of ideas and changes in their immediate network that may cascade for up to three levels (from you – to your mom – to your mom’s yoga teacher – to your mom’s yoga teacher’s kid). Which btw is the same degree of influence Christakis and Fowlers noted in their book connected.

Susceptibles are just as important as Influencers

The role of susceptibles – those who get influenced – is just as important as the role of the influencer. If there is no audience to your message, is the person delivering the message, or message influential?

The truth is, until recently we didn’t know a whole lot about who we influenced, we just focused on who was doing the influencing. A recent study in Science by NYU professor Sinan Aral looked at the role of susceptibles in product adoption and what they found was pretty interesting.

One of the most important findings from this study is that the most influential people are the least able to be influenced … that can become an issue if you are trying to use these people to roll out some message or idea in an organization.

What does this mean for organizational change initiatives?

Here are my thoughts …

  1. Don’t be naive about the impact a super-connector can have on your change initiatives (they probably won’t have that much power)
  2. Don’t ignore the “little guys” individuals who are popular inside their own peer group – these are your micro-influencers
  3. Influencers are hard to influence – if your initiative is important – get them on board, or move them to the periphery
  4. Don’t neglect your audience – are they susceptible to influence around your ideas – you better do some profiling and discovery of your audience before you jump in there trying to influence
  5. It takes more than just a org network analysis to figure out what people are influenced in your organization – don’t neglect the power of messaging, and the strength of alignment from the top

BTW – worth watching if you want to learn more about the Science behind Measuring Influence

Discussion (4)

There are 4 responses to “There Are No Super Influencers: The Reality about Influencers from the world of Network Science”.

  1. hi Phil, Good points. I believe that the key is what you said here: “individuals who are popular inside their own peer group”. I think of this process as a spider-web – one person influences his peer group, and they turn around and gain buy-in (influence) from other people. So it’ may be an aggregate affect, based on the collective influencing of many people. Not sure about the super-connector – I’m trying to think of someone in the Obama administration who would be a super-connector; any ideas? If we can identify someone, to what would we attribute his ability to influence, and how far could his influence go? For example, Rahm Emanuel vs. someone lower down/with less authority. Who would be/was more influential? Just trying to ground this in a real example. Cheers.

    • Phil Willburn responded:

      · Reply

      Abby, thanks for the great comment. I like the spider-web analogy, and that there is aggregate effects on influence based on who you know. There is a great new HBR article out on how leaders use networks to create change, and it really supports this concept that there are no super connectors. Basically they say that change happens when people have strong ties to small groups, but if you want to have big divergent change you need to find someone with a brokerage network, but if you need incremental change find someone with a cohesive or bonding network – so for your Obama example, I would put Rahm in more of a cohesive network, and someone like Biden in a more brokerage network – so it really would depend on the type of change. Check out the link below for a summary of the article. Does that help in any way?

  2. I think there ought to be courses in ‘network building’ taught from middle school through college, with a special emphasis on reaching youth in neighborhoods where the ties are weak to people who can open doors to jobs, careers, etc., as well as every day needs. Volunteers from industries who are already adopting these ideas could be the “influences” to build programs that reach youth with these ideas and habits, during the nonschool hours if not at the school during the school day .

    Within this would be an understanding of the “habit” and “conscious act” of network building and network influencing. Your articles would make good study material for a MOOC where this is the focus.

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