On A-Lists and Surrogates

Surrogates are a necessary evil in marketing. My former business partner Jim Meskauskas and I often used to talk about how marketers need surrogates to gauge success, but often lose focus and short-sightedly make surrogates the end focus of a marketing effort. I often used to hear Jim talking on the phone, reminding clients that their surrogates for success were just that, and they ought not to sacrifice true success for short-term improvement in metrics (the surrogates). I've had plenty of similarly-themed conversations. This morning, I read a piece by Jim Kukral over at MarketingProfs Daily Fix entitled "Take Your A-List & Shove It!" that resonated really well with me. I have different reasons for thinking the concept of A-listers should be flushed, but this little gem jumped out at me:

First off, defining "list" status based upon links is just stupid. There is no direct correlation in my mind behind how many people link to you and the amount of influence you have, none. I bet a lot of people link to Paris Hilton's sites...

We often hear about links being the currency of the blogosphere. In fact, a bunch of A-listers and other communications nerds (including myself) sat around at the Annenberg Hyperlinked Society Conference earlier this year and talked about that idea extensively. Jeff Jarvis called me out when I indicated that there was a flip side to the notion of inbound links as currency, and it was exactly the idea of surrogate success (in addition to the concept of blog spam) that I was referring to when I pointed out this flip side. Yes, Google's consideration of inbound links was a great development in search technology and in the general sense of democratizing the web, but there is a nasty flip side to this.

Case in point the infatuation we seem to have with A-list bloggers. I've been linked to by some of these folks (and I' appreciative), but if my overall goal as a blogger is to spread ideas far and wide, then links from A-listers are only one way to get there. Thus, getting picked up by A-listers is not the end in and of itself, but one of many means to an end.

By way of example, I look at how Doc Searls, Steve Hall, Steve Rubel, Robert Scoble and other blogging heavy-hitters linked to the idea of structured Conversation Departments and set that idea spinning off toward a lot of folks who might not have otherwise been exposed to it. But then I also see how C-List and D-List folks picked up on similar ideas and wrote a good deal more about them. I also think about the casual reader (both here and at other blogs that pick up on my stuff), who never get involved in the inbound link currency market at all, but are nonetheless impacted by ideas.

What am I getting at here? Well, I see the same problems with surrogates now that I saw a dozen years ago when advertising wonks decided that CTR (click through rate) was the end-all metric for online success. Instead of concentrating on spreading ideas and developing conversation, the "success metric creep" leads marketers toward concentrating too much on how ideas will play out with A-listers, or on how many A-listers will link to something. Like so many things in marketing, the means become the end - and that's short-sighted as hell. How long before blog marketing campaigns are evaluated in a big spreadsheet where one of the columns is "A-list links," much like how we approached CTR in the online advertising context?

Measuring the quality and quantity of links makes for a fairly decent benchmark of the popularity of a particular post. But it does a crummy job of measuring the popularity or evolution of an idea. What about all those casual blog readers who never link to things because they don't have a blog of their own? What about the D-Listers who link to something and get 2-3 good reactions to the idea instead of 20-30 mediocre ones as the result of an A-Lister's linking? What about mainstream pickup of an idea?

What I don't want to go through is another iteration of A-list blogger worship because marketers believe their pickup of a post is the end success metric of a marketing campaign. I'm not sure how we can keep this from happening, other than to caution marketers and marketing service companies to avoid "metric creep" and to post stuff like this whenever we see folks deifying A-listers again.