Taking Influence: Some Thoughts After #CNMAC11

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The Christian New Media Conference was, for the most part, a great success. Lots of people came, great stories were shared, tweets were tweeted, and then we went to the pub.

I’m not going to review all the best bits – other folk have done that already – but the keynote speech did get me thinking. Patrick Dixon, business speaker and “futurologist”, shared some of his ideas about the future of new media in a talk titled “Taking Influence”. I don’t think he ever explained why he’d picked that curious phrase, so this blog post is my attempt to do some thinking for him – not responding to his talk, exactly, but sharing some thoughts sparked off by his choice of words.

How can anyone “take influence”? Is influence the kind of thing you “take”? And when you’ve taken it, what do you do with it?

If you’re Patrick Dixon, influence is something you can measure. He reminded us several times how many people had visited his website, how many had watched his videos, how many talks he’d given, how many books he’d written and how many pages had been read online. He even puts some of those statistics on his business cards. For a business speaker, that makes good sense – he needs to demonstrate that he matters, so people will hire him. “Everyone else is listening to me – so you need to hear me too.”

You can see plenty of examples of this kind of influence-in-numbers thinking online. YouTube shows you how many times each video has been viewed. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn tell you how many people are following your updates. Klout will even calculate a numerical value for your “influence”, and if you use Twitter you’ve probably seen people agonizing over the latest ups and downs in their Klout fortunes.

Here’s the problem: none of this is influence. This is attention. If an audience of two hundred people hear me deliver a talk that is charismatic and bouncy and entirely without value, then I have achieved considerable attention and absolutely no influence. If I write a rude blog post and lots of people comment to disagree, then I have won lots of attention without actually contributing anything of value.

Influence is about changing how people think and act. It cannot be “taken” – it can only be earned, when the people you engage with recognize that you offer something valuable.

So I’d like to suggest a change to Dr Dixon’s title. Our job as digital disciples is not to “take influence”, but to take responsibility for our influence. Work out what you want to change, and then find something valuable you can offer to start that change. If people like what you give them, you’ll start to have influence. If you don’t have anything valuable to say, all the marketing and self-promotion in the world will only win you attention.

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About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.