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.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.