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The Great Influence Debate – What if Watts and Gladwell are both wrong and both right?

Apr 04 2013 Jeff Wilson

By Jeff Wilson                      (Originally published in July 2010)


It seems every so often a major debate arises because someone uses some math to redefine an accepted belief.  Not a bad thing to happen as long as it is to improve mankind and not just to make a name for yourself.  In fact, challenging current beliefs should be a regular occurrence.


This time it is about influence and I must say I’m concerned.


The Grudge Match


In the blue trunks we have the challenger, Duncan Watts, proclaiming the super influencer dead and raising the common man up on the pedestal as the new super being power to the people!  Nobodies are the new somebodies his sycophants scream from their blogs and Twitter accounts.


And in the red trunks we have the current champion, Malcolm Gladwell, the godfather of the super influencer via The Tipping Point and champion to the elitist perspective of the power of the few. In his corner are the thousands upon thousands of marketers and companies who based their marketing strategies on reaching specific individuals to spread the good word.


Now the problem here is our champ is fighting with one hand behind his back because of his own views on using Social Media, opting instead for more traditional means such as speaking, his books and PR. With Malcolm’s absence from Twitter does the champ stand a chance while every minute his idea empire is being besieged by Duncan’s minions?


If you believe, like I do, that ideas struggle for existence; rising and falling as they gain strength or weaken to competing ideas then this could be an interesting fight indeed – Natural Selection at work.


But before we get into the color commentary of our title fight, let’s first understand what the fight is about.


Somebodies, Nobodies and the Nature of Influence


So is there room for a third idea here on influence? One that lands squarely in the great gray area in between these two polar opposites. After all, how can a complex human condition such as influence be explained in such a black and white perspective? How can math or even Chaos and Complexity Theory, for all its power, truly understand a highly evolved and mostly subconscious powerful emotional layer such as how we influence each other?


Let’s take a quick look at the Nature of Influence


  • It is about cause and effect in endless overlapping cycles; both chaotic and predictable.
  • Its complex and nebulous
  • Everybody and everything has it (what?? things have influence?)
  • Influence works on multiple levels – seen and unseen; conscious and subconscious; logical and emotional; positive and negative.
  • There are many forms of influence


This last point is what I would really like to explore because it might help identify a middle ground between these two intellectual leviathans.


Forms of Influence


Believing we affect each other in a single or limited way is myopic and an injustice to how human beings relate to each other and how we relate to our environments. Let me take a swing at identifying some of the major types of influence I could think of to help explain the concept.


  1. Popularity: Probably the most commonly identified form in society but popularity is also situational.
    • Example: Celebrities are a fine example of popular influence
  2. Presence/Position: Presence and position relate directly to authority and how we each perceive authority.
    • Example: Watch how people change when a police officer is in a room or drives by or when Barack Obama takes the stage.
  3. Reputation: Influence of reputation relates directly to the emotions of trust (loyalty), fear, love and hate emotions of attraction in other words.
    • Example: Brand and customer loyalty rises and falls in each of us according to the integrity of the brand (overall experience, service-product quality, price vs. value, what others say about it, etc..)
  4. Ideas: Simple powerful concepts and ideas are influential. The easier it is to relay the idea and the more people it applies to, the greater the influence.
    • Example: Barack Obamas Yes we can idea that united tens of millions of people in a time of great uncertainty. Watts and Gladwell come to mind to; the reason Im writing this.
  5. Emotional: One of two forms of influence that is a bi-product of all other forms of influence affecting how we feel about a person, place or thing. It can be both conscious and subconscious and depending on the strength of the source, can have a profound and lasting impact on us.
    • Examples range from the emotional tug a child starving in Africa commercial gives us to the anger at being cut off on the highway or the happiness of seeing your loved ones.
  6. Logical: The second form of influence that is a bi-product of all other forms of influence affecting how we rationalize our world and our experiences within it.
    • Example: Reading a product whitepaper, an article, or a book such as the Tipping Point.
  7. Situation: Situational influence is the wild card in my mind and is the determining factor for how much all other forms of influence affect us. Ill give two examples to illustrate.
    • Example 1: Situation is driving your car on the highway and a police cruiser pulls up behind you. That is the situation.
      • If you are speeding, then presence (police authority), emotional (fear-anxiety) and logical (slow down) influence forms come into play and immediately affect behavior
    • Example 2: Situation is a strategy meeting with a well known marketing consultant.
      • As the discussion progresses reputation, presence, idea, emotional and logical influences are at play at the same time; each of you and your colleagues are being affected differently. Senior marketing people may not be affected by reputation or presence nearly as much as juniors.
      • Now consider how each person in the room is influencing the other; a constant shifting sea of influence.
      • But without the strategy meeting or the strategy meeting without the marketing consultant, the power of the situation and its impact on the attendees changes.


Police influenceLayers of Influence


The metaphor I use when I try to explain how layers of influence work will hopefully help you visualize the concept better than words.


The metaphor is drawn from an experience near and dear to me and my boys; that of riding the bumper cars at the amusement park. If I am in my car, I could be bumped by one car or completely surrounded and jostled endlessly. The better drivers are able to influence me more while the poor schmoe stuck against the wall has little affect on me but I can take a good run at him, thus influencing him to a greater degree.


Layers of influence, situations and people work in the same way. They constantly bump into us, overlapping, morphing to continually affect our perceptions, behaviors and beliefs personally and in business; both positively and negatively.


Influence Distribution


This is really the heart of the debate between the champ (Gladwell) and the contender (Watts). How is influence distributed?


So here is my take


Just like an opinion, everyone has influence. But just like opinions there is a high degree of variance in quality and quantity for each person. I prefer to think of influence as a sliding scale and highly situational.


A person can be a super influencer at one time (a firefighter at the scene of a fire) and have little influence the rest of the time. Our level of influence rises and falls; sometimes gaining strength in a certain area (such as marketing) and sometimes losing strength as a reputation deteriorates.


So is Duncan Watts an influence Robin Hood? Stealing influence from the super rich and giving it to the poor and influentially bankrupt?  Is Malcolm Gladwell Prince John then? Hoarding influence for the social royalty alone? That would be amusing.


I prefer to look at how influence works more like a caste system. We have a big mass of low caste which has little influence beyond their own inner circle. We have a middle caste which has influence below and above it in varying degrees and an upper caste which has tremendous influence (both direct and indirect) over society, economics, politics, and business.


This differs from Gladwells Oligarchical view and Watts’ Marxist view. It’s foolish to discount the power of super influencer (even more foolish to question their existence) and at the same time you cannot underestimate the powers of the mob or a solitary voice that can create a mob under the right situation!


The roman emperors knew this, He that controls the mob, controls Rome.


Positive and Negative Influence


Positive and negative influence has always existed and again is more like a slide rule than a black and white concept. We all create it and we are all affected by it. We need to be able to understand that as a business, you can negatively influence your customers; by delivering a bad experience, making interactions overly complex or not delivering on what you promise.


Adversely, you can positively influence customers by delivering a good experience, meeting expectations, and simplifying interactions.


Amplifying Influence


Many methods and tools exist and continue to evolve to amplify a person or brands influence.


For brands (personal or corporate) Pro Tip: It is the same stuff we have always done! We have all of the traditional methods (PR, advertising, publishing, media and internet) at our disposal as well as the new social and mobile methods to influence the masses or certain segments of the masses.


For the common person (the nobodies as Duncan affectionately calls us) the recent rise of Social environments such as Twitter and FaceBook have helped improve how we can influence and how our influence can spread. But it doesn’t mean you are influential for the love of Pete.  I take that back, If you’re an idiot with a video camera, chances are you can get 5 minutes of fame on You Tube and I will laugh at you.


But let’s not kid ourselves here, the vast majority of what nobodies put out is absolute garbage covered in crap to anyone else but their closest network. This is why nobodies don’t get noticed; their content/conversations/ideas do not have any kind of mass appeal.


Lastly, our network, whether its personal or business, is probably the greatest amplifier we have for using their own methods from word-of-mouth to social media to amplify the people and ideas they believe in.


Power to the Bodies!


Don’t let thousands of years of organized religion fool ya; a few powerful prophets and priests spreading the gospel does not work! But we have grown well beyond this and power-influence has been more evenly distributed between 3 distinct parts of society.


But please, before you start radically changing your marketing strategy to stop targeting influencers, reconsider and put some thought to it. There will always be leaders and followers; it is in our DNA.


It will be interesting, however, to see how technology continues to empower different levels of society. When you give everyone the capability to have a voice, as social media environments have, you give them the potential of influence, not necessarily influence itself.


My opinion is that the vast majority of people are so clueless as to what to do with a voice, let alone understanding influence, that the masses will stay the masses; chaotic and uncoordinated followers looking to leaders to show them the way.  The X factor will always be the educated middle- capable of empowering the elite and controlling the masses.


In the meantime, I will enjoy watching Duncan Watts’ revolutionary idea reach the tipping point!


The Socratic End…THINKING_digital2


I am always left with more questions than answers. Hopefully we can find answers together or at the very least, ask better questions!


  1. Where are you on the positive-negative scale of influencing your customers?
  2. Do you know what situations are most influential on your market and customers?
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About the Author

Jeff Wilson is a marketing futurist, abstract thinker and customer acquisition specialist. For over fifteen years Jeff’s work has assisted many leading global B2B and B2C enterprises to significantly improve how they attract and engage prospective customer to turn them into profitable relationships. Past clients include HP, IBM, Home Depot, DOW Chemical, ING Direct, Symantec, Syngenta and MV1 Canada. Jeff's work is based on a deep understanding of the emotional side of human behavior and how to influence people in online, mobile and social environments to drive measurable growth in qualified leads, improve conversion and build positive brand presence. Jeff’s professional writing and speaker career is growing. He is a frequent contributor to business and marketing publications as well as being a speaker on the topics of customer acquisition, influence, and customer experience design. When not working, Jeff can be found enjoying life to the fullest as a Dad to his 3 young children in Toronto, Canada.

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