Reaching the “Network Influentials”

Also published on techPresident and K Street Cafe

Another Twitter-inspired idea from Thursday’s CAP/Internet Advocacy Roundtable discussion: when Alan Rosenblatt talked about Tweeting to “influence the influentials,” he didn’t just mention policymakers, the press and policy professionals. He also brought up the idea of “network influentials,” by which he meant people who reach large numbers of others either publicly or behind-the-scenes. Alan specifically included national and state-level bloggers, prominent Twitterers, individual activists with large personal networks and administrators of sizable email lists, but he basically meant anyone with a following.

Alan’s network influencers are related to an idea that’s come up around here before, the observation that niche audiences have proliferated beyond anything we’ve seen in the recent past. “Network influentials” are basically an expression of the same concept, though put in more interactive terms (Alan’s all back-and-forth; I’m by nature a propagandist). We could easily find extreme examples of either approach — some online publishers interact constantly with their followers while others effectively ignore them — but regardless of their degree of “networkitude”, we’re essentially talking about people with disproportionately loud voices.

Loud, and potentially amplified — network influentials tend to listen to one another, so a message placed in one space may spread to others, meaning that a small audience can have power beyond its numbers. For a great example, see Mark Bowden’s story in the current Atlantic showing how the work of a pair of essentially unknown conservative bloggers shaped the public debate about Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination, and in the process injected the “Wise Latina” meme into the public mindspace to the undoubted delight of pundits for years to come.

Their blog was read by maybe 30 people on an average day, but among that tiny audience was a handful of more prominent writers, and the videos of past Sotomayor speeches they unearthed began to climb their way up the media food chain. Within weeks, the footage had shown up on blogs read by millions, and ended up being played over and over again on cable talk shows — not that the guys who did the initial work got much in the way of credit.

Obviously, for every idea that catches public attention, uncounted others will fly by unnoticed, making it hard to predict which story will catch which voice at the right moment to break through the clutter. The best answer seems to be a combination of targeted and untargeted outreach: online communicators can use a rifle-shot approach when appropriate, connecting personally with targeted bloggers, Twitterers and journalists for instance, while still blasting information out via mass email, YouTube, Tweets, Facebook updates and blog posts.

Sometimes the targeted approach will work, but other times a random and potentially overlooked channel will actually turn out to be the most productive. As communicators, we must cast our bread upon the waters! While still saving some loaves to drop off at the right front doors.



  1. Jennifer Berk

    I was convinced by Duncan Watts’s models that bread-upon-the-waters is the right approach, at least for fairly large populations (tens of thousands). In a smaller, explicitly networked group like the conservative political blogosphere, “pitch the small blogs the big bloggers read” still makes sense.

    This discussion is one way social networks are going to change politics (and marketing of course) over the next few years: being able to “see” more of the interactions where someone is evangelizing your cause or candidate to a friend means being able to better tailor who you address and what you say to create more of those interactions. We’re going to see different best answers for different campaigns based on the sizes and topologies of their supporter networks. Should be fascinating.

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