Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

I’ve been hearing the word influencer a lot lately. People (companies) want other people, with big audiences, to talk about their stuff. There is nothing wrong with that.

Just don’t confuse your pursuit of influencers with community building. There is some overlap, sure, but if you focus on “influencers” at the cost of “normal” people, you are not building community. That’s PR – that’s outreach. It’s a crucial, important difference.

Some people want to convince themselves into thinking that if they email the person with the most followers who talks about their industry the most, they are building community. But, they aren’t.

Community for business, in it’s real sense, is based largely on engagement. Replying to people who ask you questions, being there to help people when and where they need you, sharing useful information and the spotlight – that’s community building. When you do that only for influencers, it’s not quite the same.

The thing that people miss is that by engaging with everyone who wants to engage with you, in a similar manner, you will reach influencers, directly or indirectly. If you tie an inordinate amount of time to catering to just influencers, you will miss many influencers. At first read, that might not make sense. So, let me explain.

My dad is in a pretty big industry. Every year, the largest trade association for that industry holds a conference and exposition. I have been to that expo maybe 20 times out of the last 26 years. It is the largest expo hall I have ever been in. I went to it when I was very young, I went to it when I was in elementary school and high school and I went to it a few years ago.

There aren’t many kids in the expo hall. When you see one, it’s more of a rarity. I don’t think I saw more than one or two there in any given year besides myself. For me, it was fun. I spent time with my dad, I looked at the booths and checked out companies I was interested in. I collected the free stuff and ate the candy.

But, there were a handful of people who did not get what I am about to tell you. They would scowl at me. They would give me a bad look. It wasn’t because I was rude. I was very polite and very shy. No, it was because they didn’t view me as a dollar sign. They didn’t see money coming from me. They were wrong.

When these people treated me this way, who do you think was the first person I told? My dad. The influencer, the person who makes or has some say in the purchasing decisions and decides whether or not to give a certain brand a chance. Do you think that my dad was influenced by the experience that I had? You bet he was. My dad didn’t like people treating his kids that way. A lot of other parents would feel the same way. Business can be personal, especially when business is optional – when you have competitors or your product is a novelty and not a neccessity.

Let’s say that you look at me as an influencer. If that is true, I am an influencer in the least marketable things in the world, judging from my lack of KloutPerks. But, let’s assume I am an influencer. You treat me awesomely. Great. I appreciate that. I have a number of close or, at least, really good friends. Some of them have a bunch of Twitter followers, some have a few. If you mistreat one of my friends, regardless of whether or not you view them as an influencer, you are dead to me, the (supposed) influencer.

Similarly, if you don’t view me as an influencer (you’re probably right! Heh), you should realize that you do not know who I know. I might know some people that you would consider influencers. Some of these people, I might be friends with or I might talk to regularly. If you treat me poorly, do you think I might tell them, in casual conversation? I just might. Then you’ll be getting exposure to an influencer, you’ll be getting a negative experience with your company coming from someone whose opinion they respect.

Influence isn’t as clean and clear as you might think. Community building isn’t about “influencers,” it’s about engaging with the people who love your stuff and support your business, regardless of how many Twitter followers or Facebook friends or RSS subscribers they have. Everyone has some measure of influence over someone else and, together, your community will always have greater influence than the influencers.