Measuring Influence One Click at a Time

From No. 1 finisher Jeremy Schoemaker to Shaquille O'Neal (no. 1,709) and beyond, here are the 29,795 photographs we received from participants in our social-media experiment. Go to fastcompany.com/influence for details about the top finishers and to search for specific participants.

Who is the most influential person online?

Last summer, we invited readers and other web users to explore that question in a special initiative called the Influence Project. In early July, we launched a dedicated website (built by digital firm Mekanism), and for six weeks anyone could sign up and participate. Our definition of influence was basic: Each participant received a unique URL; every time someone new clicked on your URL, you got credit. In addition, if those clickers decided to sign up as participants, you received partial credit for any clicks they obtained.

In all, 32,955 people participated, collectively receiving clicks from 1.63 million unique individuals. All participants who chose to submit a photograph are pictured on the following pages; the pictures are in order of their final score, with the higher-ranking finishers shown larger. You can go to fastcompany.com/influence to get a closer look at the photos and to search for where specific participants appear in the list.

Our top finisher is Jeremy Schoemaker, credited with more than 500,000 clicks. He is a blogger, search-engine optimizer, serial entrepreneur, and the founder of ShoeMoney Media, an online marketing firm. He says he took a straightforward approach to generating response to the Influence Project, tapping his 110,000 Twitter followers, blogging to his 60,000 daily readers, broadcasting to his 5,000 Facebook friends, and using his million-strong mailing list to activate his network.

Schoemaker is joined in the top 15 on our list by a slew of interactive marketing specialists, and that fact has raised questions about how some of the project's results were achieved. Pace Lattin, founder of the advertising-news site Adotas.com and the No. 10 finisher in the project, wrote in an email, "I cover this industry and have owned/run some of the top publications in interactive advertising. There is huge talk that most of the marketers [on your list] used pay-per-click, keyword buys, etc. I can tell you No. 1 on your list is ShoeMoney -- he is a guy who sells DVDs on how to game the system, how to generate traffic and money."

"Ah, yes, the guru basher," Schoemaker responds. "Evidently, he forgot the part where I built an advertising network and four months after launch was bringing in over $2 million a month before selling to a VC firm. As far as gaming the system, I teach people how things really work. Sometimes it's not always by the book, but I am very transparent. People appreciate that, and I've developed a following."

The reality of the Internet is that it is an economy built on clicks, and in this way, our project results reflect the types of behavior that happen online every day. Some people, for instance, placed ads on Craigslist to generate clicks for themselves. We did not disqualify them, though we did disqualify others. For instance, we noticed that one participant had made any click on his home page an automatic jump to his Influence Project URL. That seemed more chicanery than influence. But if we couldn't prove that people were using illegitimate means, we left them in.

Some curiosities stand out, though -- particularly when you compare participants' direct clicks to the number of people they persuaded to sign up. Schoemaker, for instance, brought in a respectable 434 sign-ups, converting about 3% of those who directly clicked on his URL. But Peter Dudek, who finished No. 11 in our ranking, and No. 20 Ivana Taylor failed to get even one person to sign up. At the other end of the spectrum, No. 13 Mari Smith, a social-media consultant, chose to make and post a video on YouTube to encourage her Facebook fans and Twitter followers to support her -- and had a solid 350 sign-ups, an 8.5% conversion rate. Most impressive was Justine Ezarik (No. 14), aka iJustine, who generated 4,802 sign-ups -- some 15% of all participants in the project and a whopping 23% conversion rate. And she did it via one tweet and two YouTube video posts. (If we did this project again, we would make sign-ups a more significant part of our scoring system, emphasizing deeper forms of engagement over simpler clicks.)

There were other strange occurrences. We had one A-list celebrity offer to participate in the project as long as we guaranteed she'd win it. Another offered to participate in exchange for an assurance that he'd grace our cover. (We declined.) Four weeks into the project, Nathan St. Pierre (No. 246) attempted what he called a "hijacking" of the Influence Project and contacted the top 100 people on our ranking at the time "to use our 'influence' to do something good -- something to make a difference in people's lives." We recognized St. Pierre and his followers in a blog post on FastCompany.com, but after receiving a backlash from other project participants, St. Pierre "surrendered."

More uplifting is the case of Ed Cohen and Pris Nelson, who signed up for the Influence Project under the name of Prashanth, an abused and abandoned 11-year-old boy in India. Cohen and Nelson, who worked in India for several years, sponsor Prashanth at a school there. Their plea, through social media and a press release they created: to have Prashanth win the Influence Project and "use his story to bring attention to the 138 million homeless children in the world." While Prashanth finished only at No. 20,837, that doesn't tell the whole story. Cohen heard directly from dozens of people, and a college in India offered Prashanth a scholarship. "When we registered for the Influence Project, it was like striking a match that created a small fire which spread quickly," says Cohen. He and Nelson have been inspired to launch a program they're calling "One Child at a Time," to recruit others to sponsor orphaned and abandoned children in the developing world.

In the end, the project confirmed both the power of the Internet and how much it is still a frontier, constantly morphing and moving. Measuring influence precisely remains elusive. Anything can happen online. And everything will. We'll keep studying how technology enables ideas to move and spread in new ways. Our commitment to covering online influence does not end with the Influence Project.

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4 Comments

  • New Man Expressions

    I personally like the quote Shoemaker makes that "the internet is an economy of clicks". We all wanna be liked. Common thread of all people. The most interesting thing I find about your company is that you love influence. I encourage you to keep seeking the root of your success. Don't let it stop with you. We all are fruit of tree. It just depends which tree you're from as to whether your wisdom will be lasting. My encouragement for you is to promote other people more. I overcame $50,000 in hospital bills starting with giving $5 to the poor. Soon I was giving $100. Now thousands. Do good to others and it will come back to you. Worrying about yourself will dwindle your enterprise. Share more links in your articles. Give more worthy outbound links. Get involved with what many are doing for others and you'll see a tree that bears precious oil that brings healing to the world. Love you guys. Take care!

  • Andy Fields

    I do like what mBLAST says about the winner of this contest "has a large audience that is willing to take the call to action." - Sure, the winner didn't get his followers to donate lots money for mosquito nets or some clean water initiative, but his influence was still "real" in the form of a small gesture by many of his followers. These little actions of peer voting and the "Like" will become the fuel for many New Media companies that build their businesses around maximizing CTRs and promoting their individual and partner brand messages... so long as these messages offered resonate with the brand's followers. I also do agree w/ Gary that to be influential, your message must be topically relevant to your audience. No doubt.

    I also agree it with Jamie that this was a bit of a puny online article too after all their promotion; my theory is that FastCompany is a bit ashamed they did not do better. Their application was poorly written... response time was horrible as the number of participants increased. I bet they had 90% of visits simply dropping during their Web Page Loads... doubt they will share their Google Analytics stats with us.

    From the FastCompany Editor (Robert Safian): The load times were slower than we would have liked -- sometimes users had to wait as long as a minute to get on -- and there is no question the pool of participants would have been larger if the site had been faster.

    People got bored WAITING for this WEBSITE TO LOAD. Obviously FastCompany did not perform load testing or conduct any conduct response time predictions (ahem, my software) on the customers' End User Experience of this application. Most readers know about the @Digg effect, but this application was especially egregious in the way it was written and its performance across a network.

    I must know what I'm talking about here because I beat Shaq on this Influence project! :)

    -Andy Fields
    www.twitter.com/PainPoint
    www.painpoint.com

    * Contact or follow me if you'd like to learn more about my "High Definition APM"- Application Performance Management suite. Ask me about my Xpert products: (AppTransaction, AppInternals, AppResponse, AppSQL) for best practice monitoring, and deep troubleshooting of your critical applications!

  • Gary Lee

    As I point out in our blog today (http://blog.mblast.com), we congratulate Fast Company on achieving your goals for this project -- driving interest in your brand. And we wish you had called it something OTHER than an Influencer project.

    At mBLAST, we're deep into the calculation of influencer scores, and we approach the problem from the standpoint of "who is saying what" in the market, who has real authority, who is truly driving market segments, etc. It's a fascinating area of work, and we are releasing new solutions soon that will allow marketing professionals to better understand it all based on their definition of market segmentation.

    There are many tools that try and measure influence - most focus on popularity which is akin to what the Influencer project here from Fast Company has done. It's a nice start, but it's not sustainable, and it does not go granular enough to derive influence scoring for highly-granular market segments.

    Thanks for kicking off some industry discussion Fast Company. We would welcome a seat at the table to share our points of view going forward for how Influence can really be measured.

    Gary Lee
    CEO
    mBLAST
    glee@mblast.com

  • Jamie Beckland

    Well, just as I predicted in an earlier blog post: http://jamiebeckland.com/2010/...

    The big splash online when the contest was launched has resulted in a puny article in the final edition. The concept of measuring influence this way is absolutely ridiculous, as your own reporting acknowledges, with gaming the system all too easy.

    Your conclusion that "measuring influence precisely remains elusive" is right - but the fact is that this implementation could have been much better. There are lots of tools that already exist to measure influence - tools like Klout, Gist, Rapportive, Radian6, ViralHeat, Agryle Social, and many, many others.

    Fast Company just thought that it could build something that served its own needs better than the influencers, with a mediocre result.