What Do Influencers Do, Exactly?

Thanks to Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, more people becoming aware of “microtargeting” campaigns on social media. Used by pretty much every company on the internet, these are designed to change your behavior. They might be encouraging you to vote for a certain candidate or to buy certain products.

But what role do influencers – the celebrities of Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat – play in all of this?

A recent study published in Nature Human Behavior looks into the power of microtargeting influential people to continue to spread behavior in a network once the message has been circulated. The idea being that if a campaign can change influencers behavior, they will then influence the behavior of their friends and followers.

But from there – it goes deeper. If data from companies like Facebook and Twitter can help identify influencers, then microtargeting could affect behavior beyond those that receive persuasive messages, to those that are persuaded by influencers to also change their behavior.

Sinan Aral and Paramveer Dhillon of the MIT Sloan School of Management lead the study.

“If you can change behaviors through microtargeting, what role do influencers play in spreading those behaviors beyond the reach of the targeting campaign itself?” asks Aral.

“That’s a crucial question for those wishing to influence everything from elections, to health campaigns, to product adoption.”

Although social media and the concept of influencers on Instagram, Facebook and Facebook is relatively new, this social “influence maximisation” – increasing the spread of behaviors in society through the identification of influencers – has been a subject of theoretical analysis in computer science, physics, sociology and network science for the last twenty years.

But what has been left out of the studies so far is the use of empirical data. This new study shows not only does the use of data improve “influence maximisation” by up to 87 per cent, reaching more people and thus changing more behavior, but the influencers identified through data are also qualitatively different. They are less well connected and less central in the network, and they have more cohesive, embedded ties with their contacts.

In other words, they are not just celebrities, but “ordinary influencers” like you and me.

This study provides some of the first evidence that empirical data from social networks also improves the effectiveness of how to choose the influencer. In the same way that Facebook data can be used to improve the targeting of persuasive messages, this study proves that empirical data can improve the identification of influencers as well.

“It’s important to note,” adds Aral “that data like these can be used for good or ill. For example, influencers can be used to interfere with legitimate democratic elections through the spread of propaganda or to help people quit smoking, to spread immunizations or to support legitimate marketing campaigns.”

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