Considering Authority vs.Influence in Online Outreach

To start the post off, the basis for my thinking comes from a presentation and resulting conversation by Jesse Hirsh from Metaviews regarding “The Future of Authority” given at the Academy of the Impossible. This presentation consisted of brief look at how we as a society currently view authority and how this affected the events of the past year. As part of this discussion a comparison of the current thinking of online influence against the idea of authority caught my attention because it was directly relevant to what is currently being done in terms of marketing products online through social channels as well as to the whole idea of individual influence and its measurement (example: Klout).

What I took away from the presentation is that the concept of being influential vs. being authoritative is the difference between generating awareness of a specific topic vs. generating action on it. When you are ‘influential’ the information you share has a larger reach than the average person. This is in comparison to being considered an authority where a person’s audience is likely to place trust into and act upon the information they distribute. To put it even more simply you can say that one person is really good at sharing a message but the other is trusted enough to have their message actually listened to.

After considering the difference between influencer vs. authority the question then becomes why do marketers place so much emphasis on influence? When the supposed promise of social media is to reach the most targeted audience as possible why is the focus still on the more traditional ‘pay and spray’ approach? My inference is that the focus is still very much on being able to see how many eyeballs an effort can generate (something tangible) vs. reaching someone with authority and the change in opinion/potential for future sales generated by those that trust them (something not as easily measured). To not be active in reaching those with authority though is something I find puzzling as isn’t the end goal of marketing to generate sales rather than have users simply know about your product?

To conclude I’m not saying that marketers should do away with influencer outreach as awareness generation is still important. When considering where marketing dollars are going though it is also important to consider if you can use your limited resources to positively change people’s minds about your product than simply having people exposed to it. To keep this post from going overboard I’m completely disregarding the implementation aspect of taking such actions for now (I’m thinking about it!). Watch for a post on that topic to come up very soon!  I’m interested in what others have to think about this  topic though. If you have an opinion feel free to share it in the comments or by sending a tweet to @kevrichard.

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  1. Hey Kevin, I’m glad you groked my general message, which was absolutely focused on marketing and advertising spending. I’m frustrated by what I feel is a waste of resources as people believe in a potential but aren’t willing to really think through what that means. The potential for micro-advertising and spending that connects with micro-authorities, not influencers, and builds community, is a slow and arduous task, but one well worth pursuing for any enterprise. I think as social media normalizes this is where people will be going as the pay and spray approach becomes less and less effective and the need to build real relationships becomes paramount. Today I enjoyed getting into the risks involved in being an illegitimate authority but conversely it’s actually quite easy to be a legitimate authority and build strong ties with your audience or market, yet the spending does not yet reflect this approach. Perhaps this will change in 2012. :)

  2. Awesome post Kevin, and Jesse I love your comment! (And that you wrote ‘groked,’ that is rad.) I think what I find the most interesting is that perhaps the best way to obtain any real authority in today’s marketplace is to be the anti-authority – critical, honest, human. I am seeing the days of grandiose promises slowly trickle out the window (and thank god!). I think that’s one reason Anonymous has really captured the hearts of so many people, and has really been so influential within the last year – they are the true image of an anti-authoritarian authority, a consolidated brand that is incredibly successful; IMO Kevin Roberts (of Saatchi & Saatchi) would certainly describe Anon as a lovemark, the ideal type of brand, and indeed likely the only type of brand that will survive into the future.

    Anyway, that’s enough from me! Lovely meeting you today, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. :)

  3. Kevin Richard

    It was great to meet you both. Having conversations with smart people is a great way to start off the first day of the new year! I really appreciate the feedback and I agree that communications where relationships and gathering people together is still very much lacking in the digital realm. As fast as things do move online old habits are also very hard to break. Sabrina I definitely need to check out Kevin Roberts work ( another K.R ha ha!) it’ll be cool to hear thoughts on Branding from his perspective.

  4. Kevin,

    Interesting post. If you take this Authority-Influence distinction outside of social media though I don’t think it holds up as well. For longer than not, influence has been defined as something like “generating action,” yet this is how you define authority. (If influence doesn’t cause a change in behavior or thinking, then what is it?) I think what you’re capturing here is that the term influence/influencer has been hackneyed and thus degraded somewhat by social media, or rather the companies that purport to score your ‘influence’ by measuring your social media activity.

    What do you think about Spike Jones’s distinction between broadcasters and influencers? (

    Regardless, I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Kevin Richard

    Hi Dave!

    Thanks for sharing Spike Jones’s link, its really solid! I agree that the current influencer system does simply work as a broadcast system and is a means of exchange rather than forming any sort of relationship with the audience you want to reach. As for many of the other issues that come along with this that’s a whole other story that could have its own discussion.

    On the idea of offline influence vs. online influence I agree that an offline influencer is generally someone that will make you pause and think. I probably could have went into more depth in terms of explaining authority in that unlike an influencer (offline or on) they place themselves at a level of expertise in a community that if they give you wrong advice or do something considered wrong people will feel that they have the right to take action against them. A good example of this is a services professional such as a doctor. If they give their patients the wrong advice about something people will be in an uproar compared to someone who simply just shows up on a talk show. Their advice is taken at a higher level of trust and with that trust comes repercussions if it is misused.

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