Fast Company Influence Project is a Gimmick


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Why this is so irritating to me
We're all so busy building our personal brands that I feel we're reluctant to criticize anyone who could help us extend our brands. Well, maybe I'm shooting myself in the foot here but it is time to do a bit of criticizing and I'm going to call a spade a spade. The Fast Company Influence Project gimmick is exactly that - a gimmick and a disappointing one. It seems to be a way to build a database of people and participate in link baiting more than a meaningful approach to identifying who's influential online.

Sure it looks beautiful and there's something funky about having your photograph appear in Fast Company. But it seems to be more of a whimsical marketing campaign than something a serious publication that covers innovation would do. Here's why I'm really struggling with this "project." And it begins with how it defines influence -

1. Definition of influence is too simplistic
Fast Company says, " Influence is not only about having the most friends or followers. Real influence is about being able to affect the behavior of those you interact with, to get others in your social network to act on a suggestion or recommendation."

There are some problems with this definition. It is a definition that's marginally less simplistic than counting friends and followers. Yes, influence is about affecting behavior but there's more to it than that. It is about understanding the different types of influencers (expert, positional and referent) and the types of influence including compliance, identification and internalization (see the article I wrote back in 2007 about this or read my book). Influence is also about understanding the travel path of information which this project ignores. What we have here is a popularity contest.

2. Clicking a link is not a measure of influence
What's also troubling about the "Project" is that it assumes that re-tweeting something and more directly link clicking is an accurate measure of influence. Not true. (Amusingly, you get extra credit if someone clicks on your link and signs up for the program too) .Getting people to click on a link is an accurate measure of getting people to click on a link not of actual influence which is much harder to define and track. 

To assume that the most influential person online is the one that is clicked the most is inaccurate. If anything, this project promotes the misconception that basic clicks are a meaningful measure alone. It is probably the most important visible measure but definitely not the most strategic one in the influence or marketing space. Many of us in the digital marketing space have worked hard to convince companies that there's more to digital than clicks.

3. Publications like Fast Company should never endorse link baiting
What is most worrying in some respects is that "The Influence Project" appears to be endorsing link baiting because that is exactly what they are doing themselves. As Mike Arrington pointed out, watch the Fast Company July traffic numbers they'll be much higher than earlier. Why - because of this experiment. "The Influence Project" is more about increasing site traffic (which will do well I suspect) than it is about influence. As a result, it is endorsing cheapskate tricks to drive traffic to the publisher website in the guise of a fancy name.


So what should Fast Company have done instead?
1. Fast Company should have  a more sophisticated measure of influence. Or at the very least, they should have acknowledged that their measure of influence is simplistic and explained why it is being used. I'd in fact recommend not framing this project as away to identify the most influential person online as that sets unnecessarily high expectations. You're also not going to find out the most influential person online through it either.

2. Fast Company could have used a separate URL and website for this project. That way they would have avoided all potential criticism around link baiting. It would have kept the whole initiative neat and clean in a way that it currently isn't. They wouldn't have gotten all the link baiting benefits but they're not supposed to be the point of the exercise.

3. They should have established guidelines  with regards to the promotion of the links. I'm already getting spammed with requests to click on links and retweet them. This project promotes spamming without those guidelines and that's not a good thing. It can never be. Fast Company - you're one of the good guys. Don't go promoting or tacitly encouraging spammy behavior. We've got too much of that online already.

4. Make it meaningful beyond Fast Company. Do good. Rather than rewarding people by having their photographs appear in the print issue, better still would be to donate money or online ad space (from all those extra views) to the charities of the winners' choices. That way at least something good will come out of this. To say that this is a serious effort to understand the most influential person online is a little disingenuous as there are many other far more rigorous and scientific efforts in this realm. It also lacks meaning. 

Sorry Fast Company but you've disappointed me today. It is not innovative, it is gimmicky and as an avid reader of Fast Company I'd even say that I think its off brand. 



Follow me on Twitter (@shivsingh) for more insights on digital strategy and social media.

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