4 Things You Need to Know About Influence

Want to build influence? Or measure it? Here are four things you need to know:

Influence is simple…
which makes it complicated.

At its most simple, influence is the ability to make things happen. But which things? For whom? Over what span of time? Some people influence ideas, some actions. Some influence big actions, some small. Some influence lasts a moment, some lasts a lifetime.

When we talk about influence, and particularly when we talk about measuring it, we have to define our terms…and know the limits.

Influence is contextual.

Someone writes a post. Someone else retweets it. Another person sees the retweet, reads the post, and writes a comment. Still another person finds the post on his own and then follows the commenter’s advice, to the benefit of hundreds of others.

Each person took an action. Each action had an effect. But which action is the most important? Who had the most influence?

(Not so easy, is it?)

Influence depends on the situation and what you care about. The cause (the idea)? The effect (the actions, the results)? Or the connection between the two? Whether building or measuring influence, we need to understand which type of influence is important, and why.

Influence is the product of reach and authority.

To influence the actions of others, you have to have access to them—and they have to perceive you to have some level of authority, either over them or in an area of expertise they value. Popularity helps with access: the more popular you are, the more reach you have, and thus the greater possibility of influence. But popularity doesn’t guarantee influence, it only opens more doors. And it’s ephemeral: tastes change, needs change.

Authority doesn’t guarantee influence either, though you could argue its tie is stronger. Whether granted or earned over time, authority has the potential to intensify influence: authority grants power.

But it’s ephemeral, too. Earned authority—gained over repeated interactions—lasts as long as its integrity and its relevance do. Granted authority (as in the case of a leader or manager), often lasts only as long as the appointment (or the appointee…) does.

Influence requires both reach and authority, to varying degrees. Focusing on only one or the other will leave you seeing half the picture. Or less. Both need attention. And constant maintenance.

(Most) Influence is invisible.

You see a cause. You see an effect. What you can’t see, and never will, is where influence actually happens: in the “and” between the two. You can’t see inside every individual head to know or understand if and how the two relate, because it happens in the back channel. In instant messages, in DMs, in phone calls, emails, and Waves (sniff…). In person, in meetings. At lunches and dinners and breakfasts. Out of town. Out of sight.

That’s why what we can see gets so much attention, and measuring it the cause of such debate. But understand this: for every person consciously exhibiting their influence (and influences), there are just as many (or more) consciously shielding it.

Every King has his Merlin. Every Influencer has her own.

And you’ll likely never really know who they—the real influencers—are.

At heart, influence is something we can only guess at based on what we see. We can throw metrics at it, but that’s like throwing dust at light, trying to see the beam.

Like throwing a sheet at the Invisible Man, trying to see what can’t be seen.

Is that what you see, too? Tell me.

image credit: ~Twon~

About Tamsen McMahon

Tamsen McMahon helps people get from where they are to where they're going. She's also the Vice President of Digital Strategy at Allen & Gerritsen, and a Weight Watchers leader. She writes on individual change at PersonalCartography.com.

  • http://www.kathyhogeveen.com/ Kathy Hogeveen

    Reading this post made me think of two things; being influenced and being an influential. First, influence has a lot to do with trust, allowing something/someone to effect our decisions and second sowing seeds is all we can really do. We don’t always see the results of the harvest and therefore the measurement of our influence is difficult. Social media has opened up both sides of that equation.

  • http://www.esimplestudios.com Gabriele Maidecchi

    Very thoughtful, it’s always hard to distinguish between “given” authority and an authority someone earns with actions, the latter being obviously much more relevant in business.
    I have started to wrap my mind around real influencers (for me at least) among the people whose blog or tweets I read regularly, and I think it’s a form of respect you earn after repeatedly providing relevant and useful information to your followers/readers.
    Also, I had the evidence myself that often the quality of your actions expand your reach and authority, as I find myself following people who have been recommended by others I trust and respect.
    It’s indeed a very complicated subject.

  • DinoDinosaur1

    Think about it. Is it better to be the King or Merlin? Your answer tells you a lot about yourself.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

      It does, doesn’t it? And I’m pretty sure that’ll be the subject of a follow-on post. (Me? Merlin.)

  • http://Www.Dadtoday.com Stefan

    With you till the final metaphor. A sheet on the invisible man and you do actually see him – sort of. Maybe sheet over the wind?

  • Anonymous


    We were tweeting about this in the somewhat recent past, I believe! Your post reminds me a lot of a post I wrote back in September on Trust & Influence… which is here: http://livepath.blogspot.com/2009/09/on-trust-and-influence.html … and in which I tried to put some equasions around things like voice, reach and influence. I also stuck a diagram in there on the “Trust Spectrum”.

    Anyway, my formula for Influence was INFLUENCE=REACH/TRUST …I used trust instead of authority deliberately, because I didn’t see the two as mutually exclusive. Also I think that trust is also contextual and fluid, like you.

    Anyway – I think we’re thinking alike here… or thinking out loud together. Cheers!

  • twitter forga05

    Ultimately, influence is the precursor to legacy.

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  • http://press20.blogspot.com/ Hayden Sutherland

    The science and subjectiveness of Influence has been been the subject of a lot of serious thought since way before social media and the Internet were even considered. However, the concept remains the same…. you have to understand why people say or think “yes”. (Note: to find out more about this stuff, I recommend reading Robert Cialdini http://www.amazon.co.uk/Influence-Psychology-Persuasion-Robert-Cialdini/dp/006124189X ).

  • Mike

    Good analytical approach ..
    And then there’s the acknowledged master Dale Carnegie

  • Intrinsicdealer

    “At heart, influence is something we can only guess at based on what we see” – Agreed; even through very young eyes http://instrinsicdealer.blogspot.com/2010_08_01_archive.html

  • http://www.skypulsemedia.com/ Howie at Sky Pulse Media

    Influence is very ephemeral I agree. It’s is also a crap shoot when it comes to Social Media. In fact your post here in facts relates to my opinion that all Social Media Influence tools (not reach, influence) are utter failures. Dismal. These tools have no idea who anyone is or the context of what is being said. And the context of what Influence is, tends to be misrepresented often. Which you explained at the end. Great post!

  • http://www.kherize5.com Suzanne Vara


    Fantastic post that I hope resonates with many. We see so many that see popularity as influence and in some areas I suppose it does equate but here as you have pointed out it does not guarantee it and that is a very clear message. People look at the numbers and think the more followers, connections, friends, “conversations” with popular people, the more influential they will become. This misconception is leading them down a path of disappointment and destruction.

    I wholeheartedly agree that most influence is invisible. We cannot get inside peoples heads and this is where I really think that popularity is construed as influence. If someone is talked about a lot, bam, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to gush about them. The one that says they are not so sure yet, a bit reserved is pushed away from the cool kids table as people want to latch on to what is popular to get noticed and become popular too.

    This is a topic that we can talk about over and over again and yet we still see folks trying to create some new metrics to gauge influence. People buy into it as emotionally the need exists to be high a top the list. The problem with this is that here, less than half the picture is seen.

    Thanks so much for posting this.

  • http://brasstackthinking.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    It certainly has, Kathy, which is I think folks are so eager to figure out how to quantify it. While I think certain aspects are quantifiable (but only useful given particular contexts!), there’s a huge amount–as you point out–that simply escapes numbers: the human element. Part of me (okay, a lot of me!) hopes that we’ll never be able to fully quantify that.

  • http://brasstackthinking.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    It’s that complication that makes it all both so intriguing and difficult. Depending on what you want to know, and why, you’ll find different forms of influence, and therefore different influencers, more valuable. I’m with you, though: I’d take earned authority over granted/appointed authority any day.

  • http://brasstackthinking.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    Well, I think it is possible to see *some* forms of influence, and measurements can indicate where that influence might exist, and in what form–though the details and the true nature of the influence will always escape hard measures. Given that, I think the metaphor still holds. Do you agree?

  • http://brasstackthinking.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    Thanks for pointing me back to that post, Leigh–I love your diagram there; it lines up very well with another idea that’s been kicking around in my head that relates to what we’re willing to share (and at what price) at each of those circles on your Trust Spectrum.

    I went with authority in this post largely stemming from some of the discussion at last weeks #socialmedia chat, where Chuck Hemann and Matt Ridings (among others) pointed out that some people can be very unpopular and still very influential–like dictators. I’d suggest those same folks might not engender a great deal of trust in those over whom that have that influence. In those cases, influence does seem to be more about authority, even if it’s just perceived authority.

    How do you view the role trust in that situation? (As you say: thinking out loud together!)

  • http://brasstackthinking.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    Well said! Though sometimes the source of that legacy is known, sometimes it’s not. That’s one of the things I find so fascinating about influence–you know it’s there, but can only ever catch glimpses of it.

  • http://brasstackthinking.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    Thanks for the tip on that book! It looks right up my alley.

    You’re right, of course, that social media only provides new fora and situations to see and discuss influence and its ramifications. I tend to define social media as the fusion of technology and human behavior: social media provides a new (and often highly visible) overlay for how we’ve always communicated and interacted. That’s one of the reasons Amber and I spend a lot of time talking about *both* here on Brass Tack Thinking.

    To move the discussion about social media forward, we need to move the discussion about how we interact as humans forward….

  • http://brasstackthinking.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    He is, indeed, the master, and a great example of that invisibility I’m talking about. How many of us have been affected, either directly or indirectly, from the ideas that Dale Carnegie put out there? How many of us even know? (And to really confuse things, where did *he* get his ideas–who influenced him?)

  • http://press20.blogspot.com/ Hayden Sutherland

    Yes, well put. Technology overlays and amplifies human behaviour (and then makes it possible to communicate, interact, work & play together in new and previously impossible ways). Influence therefore follows the same evolution, with it now possible to affect, listen and engage wwith people who you don’t have any physical connection with.
    These are very quick-moving (but fun) times we are living in.

  • Anonymous

    I guess my quickly formed thoughts on the matter are as follows:

    Trust is fluid and contextual. Without trust, there can be no authority –> but trust doesn’t necessarily indicate legitimate authority. There are plenty of people who “look” authoritative who dont necessarily have a worthy, knowledge-driven, authentic area of competency or expertise. These folks are spin-driven authorities (perceived authorities, as you mentioned) or “FAUXTHORITIES” …and if you look deeper you’ll find almost all of them have a personal agenda that centers on self-promotion.

    Then there are AUTHENTIC AUTHORITIES (bonafide authorities in given areas who have the backing of their peers, industry, other authentic authorities etc. but perhaps not much public notoriety). I find the authentic authories are usually pretty busy “doing the work” and focused less on positioning themselves for the public, although there are some exceptions to this rule.

    Influence can be garnered with both types of authority… although I’d argue that it’s a different TYPE of influence. I’d argue that authentic authorities are more aligned to influence focused, concentrated and potentially powerful, informed populace. Fauxthorities are more likely to garner influence with a less informed populace… especially the lemming constituency.

    Which group of followers is more powerful? That totally depends. I have seen people rile up a lemming constituency to attack someone online… I have seen a small authority debunk a popular myth in the media. An Authority’s “BACKING” can definitely bolster perception. I guess, in the end, authority, like trust, is relative and requires a little examination.

    Just thinking out loud. ;-) Love the brain hockey! SMACK! Your puck!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

      I LOVE “fauxthority.” Great name for it. And I think you’re right: there are different types of influence that seem tied to extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. People with “granted” authority–say a manager in a company–can *make* people do things. They can order them, threaten them, include it as a job responsibility. Influential? Yes. Popular? No. Trusted? Well, the trust in that case may be aligned with the reliability of consequences. The people they force to act are motivated from the outside.

      Motivation from the inside, influence that speaks to people’s core drives, that’s the powerful stuff. Perhaps that’s where reach, authority, popularity, and trust all come together…?

  • http://brasstackthinking.com Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    What a great story you tell in that post–and a great illustration of the true power of *mutual* influence. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, how that group of men came together, and came to be such trusted and valued friends?

  • Anonymous

    I love “granted’ authority. I also toy around with the idea of “assumed” authority… you know, the folks who decide they’re just going to assume an authoritative role without really earning one. It does seem there are many types of authority.

    In terms of how it all comes together (I would add “voice” also – dealing with topic and personality) … there’s gotta be a word for it, Tamsen…. hm… maybe the topic of a new blog post… but it is most certainly the “it” factor. If only there were two of me, I’d most certainly write more often. LOL!

  • http://twitter.com/bpausche Beverly Pausche

    I agree that both authority and reach are required to be influential. Good article on those points, and as Kathy mentions, trust is also an important ingredient if you want to build influence. For example, elected politicians have both authority and trust, but that the trust component is earned/lost depending on how they exercise power. Same goes for a major corporation acting within the law, but not necessarily meeting stakeholder expectations.

    Would like to see more on measurement — will check out your other posts. Thanks for a good article!

  • Tanja

    I like that you don’t have to be a so-called “expert” in order to be influential. There are so many people out there who “get it”, and have some very good ideas. Those are the people I want to hear more from. ~ Tanja/NXT Media

  • http://twitter.com/johnvlane John Lane

    Wonderfully said. In the interest of making the difficulty of measuring influence more visible, I made a “simple” chart to show all the twists and turns (just in Twitter) where the affect of influence can hide from measurement. I thought it was relevant enough to share here: http://ar.gy/29y

    Again, well done!

  • http://www.chiqavirtual.com/ Internet marketing agency

    What influences one, may not influence another.So even after tracking and analyzing everything, one cant tell what is it that actually worked. And that is what makes social media more interesting!

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  • http://blogs.dix-eaton.com/measurementpr-spectives/ Chuck Hemann

    Hi Tamsen – Thanks for the call out of the Twitter chat. As we all talked about during the chat, I think the influence in social media question is a multi-layered onion. We could keep pulling back and pulling back and never really get to the answer. That’s why I loved your post. Context is most certainly king. It was my feeling that popularity and influence were somewhat mutually exclusive, but realizing now that they do feed each other. I don’t think the metrics part of this is that hard. It’s the process of narrowing down the potential metrics that is a pain in the ass.

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