Is Influence Transferable?

Photo credit: Sheya Fromovitz


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When sports shoe giant Adidas signed English footballer David Beckham to endorse its products it was a match made in sports lovers’ heaven. Beckham’s followers needed no leap of the imagination to follow Beckham from the arena to the shoe store.

And when Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan was asked to become a council member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, it seemed a natural fit. America was every bit as happy to listen to Kwan’s advice on how to “eat healthy” as they were to watch her glide across the rink.

Kwan’s followers however, balked when the so-called expert on nutrition endorsed Coca Cola, possibly the least nutritious substance known to man. Holding forth on fitness while at the same time extolling the virtues of a sugar-laden beverage? Nothing doing. Kwan had violated the boundaries of her influence, had gone to a place where no one would follow her.

What actually happened here? Had Coca Cola failed to do its homework? Had Kwan been so blinded by a sweetheart deal that she missed the inherent contradiction between healthy eating and promoting a sugary drink? Had she wildly miscalculated her own magnetism, her ability to bring followers along with her from one sphere of influence to another?

“Michelle Kwan Special Olympics 2010" by Special Olympics Massachusetts — Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons — http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelle_Kwan_Special_Olympics_2010.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Michelle_Kwan_Special_Olympics_2010.jpg

And where was Kwan’s agent? Did he or she warn Kwan she was about to dip her toe into dangerous waters? I mean, talk about a truly DUH moment in advertising history!

Let’s dumb this down.

Beckham and Kwan have something in common: they are star athletes, celebrities. And as celebrities, the two have followers and the power of influence, each in his/her own niche. In short, both of them are influencers.

But just how far does this influence reach? Is influence transferable from one sphere of influence to another? Beckham’s influence in the world of soccer successfully extended to touting sports shoes, Kwan’s Olympic prowess made her a great spokesperson for some things (nutrition), but clearly not for others (hint: fizzy drinks).

Is there a middle ground worth exploration?

Five Characteristics of Influencers

According to Edward Keller and Jonathan Berry, there are five characteristics common to influencers. All influencers can be said to be:
1. Activists

2. Connected

3. Capable of creating an impact

4. Intellectually active

5. Trendsetters

I would add a sixth characteristic: credibility. Because an influencer’s power extends only so far as his/her credibility. When Kwan endorsed Coca Cola she made herself look bad and as a result her credibility suffered.

One could make the argument that soccer and sports shoes are tangentially related, as are figure skating and healthy eating. If so, these two sports figures didn’t actually transfer influence from one sphere to another, but stayed within the same sphere of influence. That is, until Kwan strayed.

How then, do you explain Ryan Bellerose?

Ryan Bellerose (right) and a teammate (courtesy)

Bellerose may not be as big as Kwan or Beckham, but like them is an athlete and an influencer. In fact, Bellerose and his Calgary Wolfpack teammates have just won another AFL, amateur Canadian football league championship. Yet Ryan Bellerose is no dumb jock. He’s a native rights activist. And a Zionist.

The Calgary Wolfpack (courtesy)

Bellerose wields influence in all of these disparate domains though at first glance, native rights and Zionism would seem to cancel each other out. Native rights activists tend to sympathize with the Arab narrative, that of the Arab as dispossessed underdog,

(photo credit: Michael Dickson for StandWithUs)

Ryan Bellerose, however, saw the Jews as the sole indigenous people to reclaim its territory, culture, and language. He saw Israel as a role model for his people. He thought Israel was getting a raw deal in the mainstream media. So he threw his hat into the (Zionist) ring and convinced his native rights colleagues to see Israel in a whole new light.

What made it work?

“I think it’s because I already had hard won credibility in one sphere (native rights) and I am very active in that community. The people in that community for the most part realize that I am someone who generally puts a lot of thought into things.
“I had a reputation for being intelligent and very demanding, so when I say something about history, people generally tend to listen because they know I’m honest and I have a strong dislike of dishonesty.
“I think my argument about Zionism being a native rights movement, resonates for two reasons, 1) because it’s true, and it’s so obvious that it gets overlooked as a key argument, and 2) because most Jewish people have strong ties to their ancestral lands.”

Bellerose speaks about credibility, but he also sees a connectedness between native rights and Zionism. Because Bellerose has earned credibility with his followers, they are willing to get onboard.

Credibility is also cited by Influencer Lorelai Kude as a common denominator for her broad following as an Internet radio impresario, social media wiz, widely-followed political pundit, and um, kippie (Kosher hippie).

Lorelai Kude (courtesy)
“I think the thing that allows me to be influential in the areas you mentioned is credibility. Do I think that any of the credibility I’ve built up in these areas (and others such as Astrology for instance) are transferable to other areas? I’m not sure if they’re exactly transferable but they are indeed ‘currency’ which as you know has an exchange rate.
Lorelai with Jerry Garcia (courtesy)
“The ‘currency value’ of my influence in key areas is only enough to get me into the door in most cases, in areas in which I have no actual expertise or credibility — but sometimes getting in the door is enough, and other times getting in the door is a way to begin to build credibility in another sphere of influence. So there is immense value in credibility even if it’s in rarefied areas, but the person who wants to spend his/her credibility in areas not covered by what they’re known to be credible about needs to be prepared for a heavy currency exchange rate (meaning, a loss of power, influence, or starting at a lower rung in another area of influence that they don’t have their own creds in).”

Kude makes the point that influence can get you in the door, but you may have to work hard to prove yourself. Which is pretty much what happened when Ryan Bellerose went all out as a pro-Israel activist. He’d worked hard to build credibility, so his native rights colleagues, though skeptical, were willing to hear him out. He used his “currency” but stayed within his means, so to speak.

The Case of Varda Epstein: Not The Brightest Star

Setting our sights a bit lower, let us look at the case of Varda Epstein. I’m not the brightest star in the social media firmament, but I do have a following, in particular on Facebook. This is mostly due to my political activism.

People care what I think about current events. They read my blogs and op-eds. I receive an average of three friend requests per day.

But I’m not just interested in politics. I am interested in all sorts of things. I make sourdough bread. I know the Latin names of a large number of garden plants. I like taking photos. I sing and act.

Sourdough Challoh by Varda (photo credit: Natan Epstein for Film Addict Productions)

So let’s say that a follower connects to me because of politics and then one day, his wife mentions that she’d like to try her hand at making sourdough. Her husband sees me as someone credible because of my political views and values, and he knows I make sourdough bread. Therefore, he introduces me to his wife, assuming that since I am knowledgeable about politics, I will also be knowledgeable about sourdough bread-making.

A Zoniac camper flies through the air on the zip line at the Kars4Kids camp known as TheZone (photo credit: Sheya Fromovitz)

Having earned credibility as a pundit, I’m thought of as a credible person and source of information in general. Which is convenient when I’m promoting content I’ve produced for my day job as a staff writer at the nonprofit car donation program, Kars4Kids, an apolitical charity. I write about education, social media, volunteerism, and the environment, for instance — topics that have nothing to do with politics. And like any writer conversant with the worth of social media, I self-promote like crazy when I have a new piece up on the Web.

So what happens when someone who follows me because of my views on the Middle East comes across my share of a piece I’ve written for work about Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD)? I discover that one of my most ardent political followers is an audiologist!

I discover that one of my most ardent political followers is an audiologist!

Parent of a Child with CAPD

A second political follower confides she has struggled with auditory processing issues all her life while a third political follower has dealt with this issue as the parent of a child with CAPD.

Random Affinities

Certainly my credibility is a factor here in helping my followers make the leap from politics to hearing disorder. But that isn’t the whole story. What seems to be in play here, in addition to the credibility factor, is Ian Lurie’s theory of random affinities, which states that “Two topics have ‘random affinity’ if they are connected only by a common audience.”

The trick, according to Lurie, internet marketer and CEO and founder of Portent, is to bring in topics that interest your followers, though unrelated to the topic responsible for building the influencer’s credibility. So how does one figure out which random affinities are likely to be shared by a significant number of one’s followers? You break it down.

Me:

· I have a passion for politics and for Israel

· I’m 53

· I have a large number of children

· My late uncle was a color commentator for the Steelers

· I lost my father when I was 13

My potential followers:

· She never missed my uncle’s radio show

· He’s Roman Catholic and doesn’t believe in birth control

· She was raised by a single mother

· He loves the music of the second half of the 1970’s

· She fantasizes about moving to Israel

· He’s a devout Christian who loves the Jewish people

· She’s ex-military and had boots on the ground in the Middle East

When I applied for the job at Kars4Kids, I wondered whether my being a political animal would be seen a liability to this apolitical nonprofit. But my employer was smarter than that. Rather than seeing a disparity between politics and nonprofits he saw the potential of random affinities. He saw me as someone credible, conversant with trends, and knowledgeable about many things. If I supported Kars4Kids in word and deed, he thought that at least some of my followers would come to do so as well.

Campers at TheZone, a Kars4Kids project (photo credit: Sheya Fromovitz)

The lesson I learned from personal experience is that influence is indeed, transferable, but only to a point. There’s the issue of credibility, which is there until it’s not. Think of Kwan touting Coca Cola. It’s not that the public is fickle, it’s that the public is SMART (smarter than Michele Kwan, her agent, and Coca Cola, at any rate, and that’s a whole lot of smart).

Lorelai Kude might say that in Michele Kwan’s effort to make money, she spent all her “currency.” There can be no random affinity between being a health advocate and endorsing a drink that (let’s stipulate) is really bad for one’s health. The two simply cannot coexist. The public saw the contradiction and whoops, there went Kwan’s credibility.

It’s Risky

In short, there’s some risk involved in wooing followers from one sphere of influence to another. That dynamic duo of credibility and shared interests must be present if influence is to successfully transfer from sphere to sphere. At the same time, if those shared interests negate one another, you’ve lost. Big time.

The road less traveled (photo credit: Yitzchak Epstein)

When, on the other hand, random affinities complement each other, you’ve got a win. And it’s a win that can pay off big time. As it has for Ryan Bellerose and Lorelai Kude.

And as it has for me.