Taylor Swift is Not Number One: How to Measure Social Media Influence

October 27, 2015

This month, Instagram celebrates its fifth anniversary. To mark the occasion, Instagram announced (for the first time) the platform’s top five accounts. The names on the short list will not be surprising to anyone familiar with the current state of pop culture. Taylor Swift claimed the top spot (49.6 million followers), with the remaining four rounded out by Kim Kardashian (48.1 million), Beyoncé (47.2 million), Selena Gomez (45.9 million), and Ariana Grande (44.6 million).

What might surprise you is they are not the top five stars based on fan interest right now. Some are still in the top 10, but in a different order. In fact, Beyoncé doesn’t even crack the top 25. (See chart below.) We know this because ZEFR’s technology is able to go a level deeper than follower counts—which are a measure of historical activity—and analyze which influencers command the most fan attention today. When we talk about who is most relevant and influential in social media today, we want to rank people based on the here-and-now, not a wave of interest that may have crested eight months ago.

Think of how weird it would be to rank performers based on historical totals in other contexts. We wouldn’t name a US Open tennis champion based on total points won during the entire year. And we wouldn’t assess the trendiest restaurant based on the total stars accrued on their Yelp profile. Imagine if we measured TV by the total ratings points accumulated over the life of the show; we’d still be talking about M*A*S*H* and Cheers as must-buy hits at the top of the dial.

At first glance, these examples may sound comical, but that’s exactly the trap we’re falling into if we use subscriber and follower counts as our guideposts for who matters in social media. A follow is a one-time action that persists for a very long time. The engagements that ZEFR’s technology measures—and that we use to recommend the best talent to our brand clients—are real-time signals, indicating what talent fans still care about now. Using follower counts to identify what influencers are most significant is gravely misleading, and if you’re a brand investing in influencer marketing, it will result in wasted money and disappointing results.

With this in mind, ZEFR offers an alternative, more accurate ranking that we refer to as trending engagement. This is a proprietary projection of how much fan interaction an influencer will drive on future posts, which we derive from a recency-weighted average engagement on each channel, corrected for outlier posts and adjusted for the upward or downward trend of engagement on the channel.

Sorry Taylor, we have to award you the bronze medal for now. But if there’s one thing we know about social stardom, it’s that status can change in the blink of an eye. Maybe next month…


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