Fast Company’s Influence Project Can’t Track Influence

The proliferation of social media has discombobulated all traditional forms of measuring influence. PR practitioners are among the first to realize this, because suddenly, their jobs are radically more complicated. Instead of just mainstream media journalists and producers, suddenly there are renegade bloggers, YouTube video creators, and Tweeters that all can drive people to action.

The old forms of PR don’t work in this context: a Rolodex of a few hundred people (and yes, there are still some dinosaurs that have Rolodexes) is not going to cut it against millions of influential Facebook accounts.

The world has shifted, but the tools have not kept pace. Klout is perhaps the most robust service for measuring influence yet, and that only looks at one outpost: Twitter.

So, the come on I received in my inbox recently was enticing: “How influential are you online? Click to find out!”

The possibilities are exciting. Perhaps there was some new algorithm to analyze social media presences. I wondered if a new site would use cookies to see which recommendations I left across the web were influencing purchase decisions.

So, I clicked.

And, I was brought to the largest blatantly self-promotional concept I have seen in 2010: Fast Company’s Influence Project. The Influence Project purports to identify the most influential person online, and reveal them in the November issue of Fast Company.

How are they determining who is the most influential person? They leave it up to you! Just fill out a profile on their website, and flex your influence by getting other people to vote for you. Well, not vote exactly. Really, just bait-and-switch your friends to get them to register themselves as the most influential.

Did Fast Company suddenly become some sort of multi-level marketing system? This has to be the sloppiest “reporting” ever. I’ll outline just three reasons why:

  1. Fast Company is guaranteed to not get influential people on their list. Because of the shady bait-and-switch tactics that you have to employ to get people to “vote” for you, any truly influential person will reject the contest entirely. If you are influential, you want to drive people toward great information, better decisions, or important ideas. You got your influence by being true to your personal brand promise – you’re not going to waste that by asking your audience to join your influence downline.
  2. Fast Company actively hurts their brand by this contest. There is no way to get a great article out of this methodology. The winner will not be the real most influential person online. Therefore, the November cover story is guaranteed to be a dud. They are trying to play kingmaker instead of reporting on reality. That’s a recipe for angry readers, and calling into question the editorial process.
  3. Fast Company distorts the true nature of influence. Does influence mean the ability to get someone to fill out a profile for a meaningless contest? Or does it mean being able to sell millions of products? Or does it mean getting hundreds of thousands of people to think about a new idea? Or does it mean being known by billions of people worldwide? In reality it is a complicated equation that can’t be distilled into one simple action.

Now, the submission period is over, and we have the first confirmation of just how bogus this study is. In the top 100 candidates for most influential person, we have such luminaries as Jeryl Jagoda (a never-famous actor with 125 LinkedIn connections), and Jane Tabachnick (her 100 Twitter followers probably don’t visit her blog very often – because there is no content on the home page).

Of course, this is nothing against these two fine women. But when these are in your top 100 candidates, you know you have a problem.

The real loser, though, is marketers that need a true measure of online influence. Quantifying human relationships is hard; but it’s much easier than ever before with technology. With a bit more time, we will get some realistic measurements. In the meantime, just ignore Fast Company.