I had an interesting talk with some folk on Twitter this morning about not mistaking popularity with influence. In fact, I find this to be among the most misunderstood issues in measuring social media. Popularity is easy to measure. All you do, is look at the total number of visitors and/or the frequency of visits. You can increase sheer numbers by a few tricks the the SEO crowd will tell you about, or by posting frequently or by extending a conversation cited on TechMeme. You need to be frequent and you need to drop a lot of big names names like "Google," "Apple," or "Obama."
A killer headline for the SEO folks would be "Googling Apple for Obama followers who use Firefox." You'd get a ton of traffic, but would it be relevant to your purposes? And would you be influencing anyone at all.
But numerical totals actually tell you extremely little about influence. People could be coming because they hate what you are saying and want to keep an eye on the opposing side. I follow a couple of political blogs, for example, where I fundamentally and passionately disagree with the authors.
For a very long time, the site was called Naked Conversations, which made good sense since it was started as a place to transparently write a book of the same name. It took s a while to discover that the site name was inflating our traffic. People were going to Google and typing in graphical variations of the keyword "Naked" and this site popped up. The more searches, the more prominent we became in certain circles that were decidedly not influential to business-oriented book buyers.
Let's do a reverse example. Suppose I were a political blogger and I had an audience of just three followers. Those followers were very engaged because they read everything I posted. They commented often. They took what I said and quoted me to other people in other conversations. But there were only three of them. Therefore I would be ranked lower than chopped liver in all the ranking systems. The catch is that those three readers were the President of the US, and the heads of China and Russia.
Influence is extremely difficult to measure. First, there are different influencers by different topics. Second, as much as I cheerlead the power of the conversation, most content continues to be read, absorbed, shared and discussed by people using RSS who do not join our conversations where we can see and count them.
Engagement is one way of assuming influence. If people come back every day and stay for long periods we assume it's engagement. It can also be that people just frgot to close a tab after reading you and walking away.
I have a great deal of respect for a score of bloggers and perhaps two score of Tweeters. I refuse to share there names because, the names steadily change over time. Some of the names invariably are people with very few followers, who address matters such as hiking gardening or the environment. I talk little about them because these are topics that do not interest most of the people I am trying to influence on the topic of social media. When I start writing about something new, such as China, I gain some readers and hopefully influence them, but I also lose some who do not care to read what I have to say on that topic.
So, what's my point? I think there are two:
(1) You need to think, really think, about who you read and which of them truly influence you. Then cross check and see if they are the most popular. Smetimes there will be a direct correlation. Other times not, I would guess.
(2) The best way to influence thers is not to try to be popular. It is to shae what you know and care about. Those who care about the same topics will find you. The best conversations do not need to be held with the largest crowds.