What Would Ashton Do—and Does It Matter?

By Sinan Aral

The main reason it’s hard to understand influence is that people confuse correlation and causation.

Whenever I give a lecture, I conduct a simple experiment. First I ask the members of the audience to raise a hand if they follow the actor Ashton Kutcher on Twitter. Usually most people’s hands go up—no big surprise. For several years Kutcher has been aggressively amassing followers, even renting billboards urging people to follow “aplusk,” his Twitter handle. In 2009 he became the first user to acquire 10 million followers; by early 2013 the total was 13.7 million. Kutcher would seem the very definition of a social media “influencer.” But then I ask the audience another question: How many have ever done something because Kutcher suggested it? Most often nobody raises a hand. So I have to wonder: If Kutcher is the quintessential influencer but no one does what he suggests, in what way is he influential?

Every marketer should think hard on that question. Ever since Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of influencers in his 2000 book, The Tipping Point, companies have been obsessed with the idea that if they can get their product to a select group of connected, vocal consumers, it will be only a matter of time before it goes viral. Marketers are spending millions on social media strategies to that end; they’re working to gather followers, and they’re using “influence scores” devised by companies such as Klout and PeerIndex to try to understand how much leverage each follower exerts. Over time they hope to shift away from traditional, expensive, inefficient methods of mass advertising toward peer-to-peer, word-of-mouth campaigns. And marketers aren’t the only ones striving to capitalize on influence. Policy makers are trying to understand how it can be used to spread positive social change, such as decreasing obesity or increasing condom use.

Read the full article as published in Harvard Business Review.

Sinan Aral is an Assistant Professor of Information, Operations and Management Sciences.