Don't seek influence at the expense of impact

publication date: Jun 24, 2011
author/source: Janet Gadeski
Do you ever have moments when you're truly glad you work in the nonprofit sector, with all the generous values that implies? I had such a moment not long ago as I listened to a speaker talk about the need for businesses to reach out to their "influencers."Author photo

In the online world, influencers are people with a large number of social media followers and high credibility among your customers who might be persuaded to comment positively about your business in their tweets, blogs and updates.

He launched into a demographic analysis of the people most likely to be influencers. They're marked by incomes above the median, a high level of tech savvy, and an age range that ... well, let's just say it doesn't match our society's growing awareness of Boomer/Zoomer purchasing power.

"And what are people like if they're not in this tech-savvy crowd?" he asked rhetorically. "They're old. And they have no influence." One listener of a respectable age left the room at that point.

Online influence does not equal impact

Had the speaker been a politician, he would have just lost the election. Ask our federal MPs if seniors have no influence, and you'll see the ridiculousness of the claim that a hefty Twitter contact list equals meaningful impact on other people.

I've been reflecting on that speech for the rest of the day. I don't know whether I'm more stunned by the demographic ignorance or by the glib stereotyping of people who feel no need for Twitter and blogs.

In our sector and others, researchers have uncovered just the opposite trend. Older demographics are among the fastest growing groups on Facebook. When they need technology to accomplish a particular goal, they figure it out, and they don't get distracted along the way with gizmos, gadgets and online sidetracks.

Cash without flash

Nonprofit staffers also know that a lack of showmanship doesn't equate to a lack of anything. Certainly not money - we're all familiar with the "millionaire next door" who lives modestly and leaves a small fortune in legacies to community charities. And not influence either - at least, not in the sense of actually motivating others to say, do or believe something.

While the speaker could cite statistics about influencers' comments being rated as more believable than advertisements or celebrity testimonials, he shared no information on how that acceptance translated into action. Believing an opinion delivered online is not the same thing as acting on it, any more than signing up on a Facebook Cause page is the same as actually taking action to change something.

I'm glad to have held jobs that daily opened my eyes to the incredible potential of human beings. From 80-year-olds who were quite comfortable arranging details of a six-figure endowment online, to a board member who kept a weekly Skype date with his grandson on the opposite coast (lunch for grandma and grandpa, breakfast for the grandson and his parents, conversation, nursery rhymes and children's songs in both official languages for all), they taught me about the foolishness of making assumptions.

So choose your influencers carefully. Subject them to the same screens of evidence and rationality you'd apply to someone commenting in print. And remember that unless your social media efforts deliver more than retweets and likes, they're not advancing your mission.

 Contact Janet or yes, you can follow her on Twitter, @CFPed.

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