Q&A with the Review: Philip Sheldrake, Author of “The Business of Influence”

This is the third installment of our ‘Q&A with the Review’ series in which we talk with prominent members of the influencer marketing community about their work and thoughts on the industry. Amanda Maksymiw and Duncan Brown helped us get the series started, and now we’re grateful that Philip Sheldrake, author of The Business of Influence, is joining us for our third Q&A. 

IMR: Thanks so much for joining us, Philip. And congratulations on the book. We know that’s no easy feat.

Philip: Thanks for the invitation to chat here. And thanks for having my book cover on IMR’s homepage :-)

IMR: Oh yeah. It’s probably about time we change the image, huh.  

You’ve stated in the book and elsewhere that “the business of influence is broken.” What do you mean by that exactly? Some might think there wasn’t much of a “business of influence” in the first place. 

Philip: A definition of influence: you have been influenced when you do something you wouldn’t otherwise have done, or think something you wouldn’t otherwise have thought. There’s influence in everything an organization does, and sometimes in what it doesn’t do, and yet despite this we often apportion responsibility for influence to marketing and PR departments. The 2012 organization looks incredibly similar to the 1992 organization, which is crazy when you consider the impact of social media and related information technologies.

If our organization’s strategy is unique, why do our organizational structure and processes pivot around the same discipline-oriented departments as everyone else? Shouldn’t the structure be fit-for-process? What if strategy was grounded in the organization’s vision rather than in functional / departmental definitions? What if we elevated this regard for influence flows alongside the flow of money, materials and time?

IMR: Most discussions of influence or influencers focus on how vendors can best identify and engage with those individuals who most influence buyers’ purchasing decisions. You certainly take that up in the book, but what you also seem to stress is that the vendor, or any company in general, needs not only to influence its stakeholders but also let itself be influenced by these stakeholders. Can you expand on that for those who haven’t yet read the book?

Philip: In some ways this has been manifest for decades. Customer-centricity emerged with ‘integrated marketing communications’ in the 1990s. Everyone knows we need to understand the customer, and other stakeholders, better, for how else can we respond to their needs effectively? But modern technology no longer requires this facility to be resigned to ad hoc activity in the marketing department.

It’s not well known outside of public relations academia, or at least particularly well practiced, but public relations according to the Excellence model demands that the PR professional act as a proxy for external stakeholders within the organization as much as they represent the organization to the outside world.

In my book, I take this principle and make it a quality that needs to permeate the entire organization, systematically. You’ve heard the term “frictionless sharing” in social media lexicon, well I’m trying to help organizations take the friction out of the flow of influence. I also challenge the sacred cow of customer-centricity, but that’s a tangent to our topic here.

IMR: You make a distinction in the book between influencer-centric and influence-centric approaches, and you advocate the latter. Can you tell us a little about that distinction, and why you find the influence-centric approach to be so superior?

Philip: Influencer-centric approaches try to identify the individuals that exert most influence in the context concerned – the so-called influentials. If we can influence them appropriately, they’ll influence their network and job done. It implies that the agency or team that wields such influence tools and approach is in fact a super-influencer; an influencer of the influentials.

But this ignores complexity. The ways in which influence goes around comes around are incredibly complex. For example, we are influenced more often by the 150 people nearest to us than the other seven billion odd combined.

I have developed a new metaphor since writing the book. City traffic. The influencer-centric approach tries to find out about traffic conditions by studying the individual car or individual traffic bottleneck. The first tells you nothing whatsoever about traffic conditions, and the latter ignores the potential emergence of future influence from other sources. Influence-centric practitioners attempt to understand the flow of traffic throughout the entire city, the flow of influence throughout the entire system. It’s a systems approach.

IMR: But you think it’s still people who are ultimately doing the influencing, right, in some way, shape, or form? If an organization has succeeded in understanding the complexities of the influence flows it wishes to leverage, what does it do next if not work with the influencers within these flows, so to speak? 

Philip: It’s complex.

Sometimes it’s people explicitly exerting influence on others by their words or deeds. And when it is, it will likely be thousands of them as dozens. Sometimes it’s unconscious; people not appreciating the influence they have on others. And sometimes, it’s like the traffic jam, nothing to do with an individual at all.

The very word ‘complexity’ means a system that portrays emergent behavior; that is behavior that cannot be attributed to individual objects in the system. The social web exhibits emergent behavior; that’s two billion odd people online. When we have 30 to 100 billion things online by 2020, the Internet of Things, we can expect this network to exhibit emergent behavior too, some of which will influence people and other systems. I call this the Internetome – the manifestations of the Internet of Things as it intermingles with the ‘real world’.

IMR: You wrote in the book, “The conclusions of The Tipping Point are overly simplistic and probably just plain wrong.” You’re not the first to take issue with that book, of course – Duncan Watts comes to mind – but that’s a big statement nonetheless.

Philip: I’m a rationalist. On compiling research for the book, I found no empirical evidence supporting Gladwell’s hypothesis, and plenty countering it.

IMR: Online “influence” scoring is getting a lot of attention right now, and the commentary is increasingly negative, at least in the blogosphere. What are your thoughts on all of that? 

Philip: It’s over two years since I presented “Influence – bullshit, best practice and promise“, and I stand by it. Complexity and network science will continue to unearth insights of important commercial and societal value, but I’m considerably less enamored (as the presentation title betrays) about seeming to translate today’s analytical capabilities into some kind of a score of an individual’s influence.

Right now, we have no scalable facility to ascertain or infer who or what caused someone to change their mind or behavior, without falling into some kind of last-click attribution trap, so how then can we pretend to score an individual’s likelihood to exert that influence, and as if they did so with apparent Newtonian simplicity? We’ve barely even attempted to correlate proxies for influence, assuming that universal correlates even exist.

Today, these scores are apportioned in such naïve fashion that your so-called influence changes following a fortnight offline. Being a Facebook ‘early-unadopter’ myself seriously impairs any score I might be attributed. That’s not a complaint, just an observation with which the scoring companies concur.

Perhaps these companies attempt a measure at online popularity, or perhaps online authority, or more exactly the likelihood to have one’s online output shared/forwarded, but not one’s influence. Nor indeed one’s trustworthiness.

Some pundits are starting to replace the inappropriate use of the word influence in this respect with social capital. I prefer to call it what it is to avoid further confusion – propensity to have your stuff shared or referenced, and positively.

IMR: Where do you see things a few years from now with regard to online influence?

Philip: Well, ironically, today’s influence scoring tools have proved influential and have gained widespread adoption. People like simplicity, even when it’s flawed. As H.L. Mencken said: ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.’

People like to think someone with a score of 67 is really more influential than 66. They confuse 70 as ‘twice as influential’ as 35.

Over the next few years, the influence scoring companies will either evolve towards the framework I describe in my book and take their customers with them, or become increasingly irrelevant as the digerati exert counter-influence. I write and contribute to articles like this to do just that, although I have no way to quantify my individual impact yet of course!

IMR: We’d be remiss in not mentioning your idea of an Influence Scorecard that you put forth in the book. How would you explain it to someone who isn’t familiar with Robert Kaplan and David Norton’s Balanced Scorecard? Maybe you could touch on the Chief Influence Officer you envision as well.

Philip: The Influence Scorecard is a management approach rather than a yardstick per se. It recognizes complexity. It offers a way to redesign an organization’s approach to what I call the Six Influence Flows to its competitive advantage. It’s named in homage to the Balanced Scorecard – the dominant business performance management framework amongst the Global 2000, and works into it.

This approach doesn’t sit neatly into one of the core functions that became standard features of organizations during the 20th Century, such as marketing, public relations, customer service, human resources, etc. It transcends traditional functional silos. For this reason, I introduce the role of the Chief Influence Officer if only to underline the transformation required here, and the opportunity.

IMR: To wrap things up, what’s the one thing you wish people better understood about influence and influencers?

Philip: Complexity, simple as that.

Complexity is the phenomena that emerge from a collection of interacting objects. The interacting objects could be molecules of air and the phenomenon the weather. It could be vehicles and the phenomenon the traffic. It could be stockbrokers and the phenomenon the stock market.

Human ‘objects’ could be the population of Cairo, “the 99%”, sports fans in a sports stadium, people who like photos of cats, your customers, or your employees; in fact, any collection of people interacting with each other. Influencing each other.

You can’t understand the termite mound by studying the termite, or reduce the way influence goes around comes around to the role of ‘key influencers’.

IMR: Well thanks again for joining us, Philip. We trust you’re looking forward to the Olympics coming to your home city this fall. Which events did you get tickets to? Or will you be trying to avoid the whole thing altogether?

Philip: I didn’t want to deprive a real sports fan the opportunity, so didn’t apply for tickets. But I’m looking forward to the Olympics ‘the event’, celebrating the best of the UK, the best of London.

Philip is a Founding Partner of Meanwhile, a Main Board Director of Intellect, and Board Director of 6UK. He is also a Chartered Engineer. He is the author of The Business of Influence – Reframing Marketing and PR for the Digital Age (Wiley, 2011) and can be followed on Twitter @Sheldrake.