Though reputation and influence are related, they are not the same thing. Reputation is what people think of you or your brand. Influence is how likely people are to do what you tell them to do. Reputation is measured on a scale of good to bad; influence is measured on the scales of low to high and positive and negative. While everyone wants others to think well of them, popular opinion is not important unless it drives results. Therefore, KD Payne’s claim that “…evaluating your reputation is largely a waste of time” (Payne, 2007) holds true; what people think about you is important, but it is more important to measure how that opinion turns into conversions.

Reputation is generally secondary to influence; a company with a bad reputation can still be highly influential. Consider Wal-mart: depending on who you ask, Wal-mart has either a positive reputation as a provider of cheap merchandise in a time of economic hardship, or a negative reputation as an anti-birth control, anti-labor, sweatshop-supporting megaconglomeration. Twitter Sentiment says that Wal-mart has 55% negative results (with 66% negative for Walmart, though presumably they are the same company). The official Wal-mart site says that Wal-mart has several Twitter accounts, neither with many followers [wow, does the humble little start-up I work for really have more followers that Wal-mart?]; Twitalyzer says that their most popular handle, @WMSoundcheck, has decreasing influence and low, decreasing clout. While traffic to Walmart.com fluctuates fairly sinusoidally, it is currently going up (according to Alexa), and Wal-mart remains America’s largest employer and retailer, with rising stock. So, even though Wal-mart does not carry the morning-after pill, profits from sweatshop labor and treats their employees poorly, consumers still flock to their stores because the very same factors that lower their reputation also make their prices really, really low.

Companies with bad reputation and low influence are not viable, and must find sneaky ways to spread their message. A key example of this is spammers. How often have you received notification of a new Twitter follower, only to click on the link and realize that this new follower is actually a bot that is following thousands and followed by few? Their influence is low, so they spread their message by following as many people as possible in the hopes that someone will absentmindedly click on the link in the automatically generated link from Twitter.

A company with a good reputation and low influence also cannot stay as such for long: they will either gain influence or go out of business. When a restaurant opens to raving reviews, it has a good reputation, though the public does not yet trust it enough for it to have any influence. If that restaurant changes the its changes its menu, as many restaurants do periodically, diners are likely to be wary of the new offerings. However, every time it offers a solid new menu, its influence grows; customers are more likely to return to try new dishes in the future. Many nonprofits probably experience the same: people think well of altruistic organizations, and 20/20 reports that 3/4 of Americans donate to charity (Stossel, 2006). However, most non profits could use more funding and volunteers, meaning they do not have enough influence to fill these needs.

CommonCraft has both good reputation and a high level of influence; when Lee had a dispute with a stubborn imitator, he asked them to remove the offending content from their site. They did not. So, he wrote a blog post on the matter. Within days, the imitator was inundated with comments from Common Craft fans. Lee technically had no legal claim over the content, so he could not take action through a lawyer, but he was able to leverage the power of his constituents. The physical requirements of influence are low: Lee and his wife work out of their home with low-tech paper cutouts. Essentially, influence is putting out a good product, and then doing it again, and again, and again.

Influence chart
So how can businesses leverage influence to help drive conversions? Paul Worthington of the brand strategy group Wolf Olins states, “…great branding has always been about influence and not control – influencing consumer choices and desires in a manner conducive to your goals and their satisfaction.” He goes on to say, “In today’s world, the way to achieve this is not through bigger advertising budgets or better creative, but through involvement – first by observing the conversation and then by involving yourself in it. As a result, it’s likely that those brands with the most effective influence strategies rather than the most effective control strategies will be the most successful.” Paul’s advice for being a great influencer is “listen then respond,” “be comfortable with ambiguity,” and “filter through your purpose.” Essentially, a person or brand with great influence puts out a message, waits for others to respond, and then responds in kind with timely, thoughtful answers and statements. (Worthington, 2009)

Micah Baldwin of Lejit Networks, a website aimed at bloggers, expands by saying, “people who are truly influential become conduits for human based filtering and content discovery within their communities,” ultimately simplified to the following question: “‘can someone’s words (and/or video) make you think or do something?'” He provides a formula for measuring influence: “Influence = (Personal Brand x Knowledge x Trust2)”  When one of these variables changes, such as when a company offers a new product, re-brands or is involved in a scandal, its influence will drop. Time is also a huge factor: it takes time to develop brand, knowledge and trust. (Baldwin, 2009)

One observation is that money can buy influence, but it is harder to buy reputation. America has traditionally been controlled by large corporations with huge amounts of influence. These corporations can buy everything from advertising to elections to get what they want; the Tobacco Lobby donates large amounts of money to American political campaigns, making it highly influential, but it hardly has a stellar reputation (Solomon, 2004).  In addition, in the example of Wal-mart, people may disagree with corporate policies yet still shop at Wal-mart stores out of economic necessity; we are indeed slaves to the almighty dollar. Donating money to charitable causes will boost a company’s reputation, such as Phillip Morris donating to anti-smoking campaigns, but if its practices are otherwise immoral, the public will not be fooled.

References:

Baldwin, Micah (March 2, 2009) “HOW TO: Measure Online Influence.” Mashable. Retrieved August 14, 2009 from http://mashable.com/2009/03/02/measuring-online-influence/

Payne, K.D. (2007) Measuring Public Relationships. Berlin, NH: KD Payne & Partners, LLC. Pp 3.

Solomon, Nancy (December 14, 2004) “Tobacco lobby and its influence in American politics.” Medical News Today. Retrieved August 16, 2009 from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/17726.php

Stossel, John and Kristina Kendall (November 28, 2006) “Who Gives and Who Doesn’t?” ABC News 20/20. Retrieved August 16, 2009 from http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2682730&page=1

Worthington, Paul (March 24, 2009) “A Control Freak’s Guide to Social Media Influence.” Mashable. Retrieved August 14, 2009 from http://mashable.com/2009/03/24/brand-influence/

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