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Influencer lists: the good, the bad and the ugly

I’ve compiled my share of influencer lists over the past few years (eg., Fintech 2017, Fintech 2016, Blockchain, Venture Capital, even location-based lists). Yet when I read Ron Shevlin’s post, Fintech Influencer Lists Have Jumped the Shark, I found myself agreeing with much of it.

Shevlin is skeptical of influencer lists and what they purport to measure: influence. And he rightfully calls out list makers who publish lists as clickbait with little regard for accuracy or evidence of actual real world influence.

Yet in his effort to call out some of the bad practices, Shevlin’s arguments also seems to call into question the usefulness of influencer lists in general, even the good ones. On the contrary, I think a well-crafted influencer list is a powerful tool for an effective social networking strategy.

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The rise of influencer lists in tech

Indeed, more influencer lists have started to appear online for all kinds of areas of disruptive tech, including fintech, insurtech, blockchain, artificial intelligence, etc. These lists employ a wide variety of criteria to measure and quantify “influence” – despite, and without great awareness of, the inherent challenges in defining the thing they wish to quantify.

Since the earliest days of Klout and its 0-100 scoring system for influence, I was also a skeptic. Whatever Klout purported to measure, it was not to be confused with authentic influence in the offline world. But what a growing set of social media scoring tools are measuring bears some relationship to influence and ought not to be ignored. I call it “online influence” and I believe it measures the ability of an influencer to attract an audience interested in their subject matter and, perhaps most importantly, their ability to move content through their network.

Valuable tools for social networking

Good influencer lists identify people with subject matter expertise who have developed considerable online audiences that follow them. These influencers typically have attracted the attention and earned the respect of other knowledgeable people in their industry.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. A good influencer list is very valuable and can be very useful in a variety of ways.

Good influencer lists can function as excellent starting points for tuning into and understanding the best thinking on an issue. Fintech is a perfect example. While we used to rely on trade journals and conferences to keep up to speed on new developments in the fintech space, innovation is moving so fast these days that influencer lists and the curation and sharing that these influencers facilitate is one of the best ways to stay up to date between meetings and live events.

Influencer lists are always going to be the product of objective and subjective analysis, relying on both quantitative data and qualitative observation. Even the choice of what quantitative data we are using to measure “influence” is subjective. And as we each observe a variety of influencers, some of them stand out as more influential to us than others – and this is also subjective. So, in the end, influence is highly subjective and we should not be expecting that anyone else’s list will reflect our own set of preferred influencers.

As an aside, there are also influencer lists that do not rank people. Bill Sullivan maintains an unranked list of 25 influencers that he finds worthy of his attention (see Thanks to my Top 25 Financial Services Twitter Influencers of 2016). Bill is a smart guy who is actively engaged in online discussions around fintech and financial services, so a listing of who he’s paying attention to has value.

There are some best practices that I advocate when working with influencers and lists. For starters, I tend to focus on individual human influencers, rather than organizations, institutions or non-human bots, because you can build real relationships with people online – and that’s one of the most valuable things you can do with an influencer list. That’s not to say organizations, publications, businesses, bots, etc. cannot be valuable in keeping abreast of developments or distributing content through social networks, just that you’re typically not building relationships with them in order to do so.

As a publisher of influencer lists, I believe that specific ranking (i.e., who is ranked first, or tenth or 98th) is not as important as the collective use value of the community represented by the top 25, 50 or 100 influencers. (For more information, see How to use an influencer list.) Since there are many ways to quantitatively rank influencers, no one method is definitive. Therefore, no ranking is definitive. I always try to point this out when I publish a list, but people being people, their vanity can get the best of them.

Welcome to the influence economy

And this is where, again, I more or less agree with Shevlin. There are lots of influencer lists out there, but many of them fail to capture real online influencers (though some lists are better than others). And the self-congratulatory back-slapping and social media gamesmanship associated with being included on influencer lists is often lost on many consumers of those lists.

And yet, online influence has emerged in recent years as a form of currency that we can accumulate and trade for other benefits in terms of our reputation and brand visibility. The ranking and scoring of online influencers, whether that be in lists or other more actionable applications, can guide us in finding, listening to and interacting with knowledgeable people that can help us and our businesses.

Influencer outreach and engagement is rapidly emerging as an effective new way to do marketing and public relations. And a well-crafted collection of influencers is a critical tool of the trade.

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