Allies, not rockstars: Influencer research for us mortals

Ian Lurie

Most marketers equate ‘influencer research’ with ‘finding a celebrity who will endorse for free.’ I call that the Rockstar Method.

It’s a miserable approach.

Ready-and-waiting rockstar social amplifiers are slightly less common than mint-condition K cars.

K Cars: Bask in the awesome

K Cars: Bask in the awesome

The Rockstar Method has its place with major brands, pure luck and the well-connected. Mere mortals like you and me, though, need allies, not rockstars.

Find rockstars you like. Then sift through their followers, looking for allies: Knowledgable, valuable, selective curators who benefit as much from your relationship as you do. That’s it. Nothing sexy. No fantastic automation. Just good old research. If you haven’t snorted derisively yet, keep reading, and I’ll explain how I do it.

Overall technique

The rest of this post walks through research examples using five different sites I can use as proxies for the social/knowledge/whatever graph.

If you’re a scientist and ready to punch me in the patella for savaging the definition of social graph, I apologize. Note that both my patellas are pretty much shot, though, and take comfort.

But you can do this research anywhere people gather. The process is the same:

  1. Select the network. That’s the gathering place. I usually use two or three, bouncing back and forth as needed to improve my data.
  2. Find potential allies. Dig through the network to find the kinds of people who might be good allies.
  3. Expand. Look at their friends. Expand your pool until you’ve got 100-200 possible allies. It’s a shortcut: Instead of researching person-by-person, you can look for overlap and more easily build a pool of potential allies.
  4. Focus. Once you have the pool, comb through and narrow it back down to 1-2 people. Do not spam people. You can always add folks back later on. Talk to and learn from specific folks. Don’t scream at them as they walk by.

I always assume a 1-2% ‘conversion rate’ from stranger to ally in my research: Look at 100 people, find one good ally.

I’ll be the example here. I write about marketing a lot. I’d like allies who will amplify my writing, and who have stuff I’d like to amplify. Here’s how I do it:

These are my five go-to research networks:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Google+
  • Retail sites

There are others. Depending on the topic, I sometimes use Reddit, Pinterest, Instagram, StumbleUpon, etc. But the five above are almost always winners.

Selected network: Retail sites

Most retail sites have product reviews. Many have huge communities of reviewers, and those reviewers are a great starting point for my research, and fantastic potential allies.

Why not just start with Twitter, or another social network? Heisenberg. Not from Breaking Bad. From physics. On social networks, we know we’re being observed, every moment. 90% of our time on these networks, we’re there to get attention for expertise. I know reviews are similar, but there’s usually more of an emotional component. It’s more organic. Using Twitter to find allies is like trying to sell in a room full of salespeople.


This is about writing, so I’ll start on Amazon and find a relevant book or product or author I liked a lot. Then I’ll look at the top reviewers. They read the same stuff I do, so they’re great potential allies. I research them with three questions in mind: Who are they? What are they like? How can I help them?

I really like stuff Marty Weintraub writes, and I know he has a book, so I search for him. I find his book about Facebook ads. It’s got 38 reviews, and some verified purchasers (folks who actually bought the book). So I browse through a few of the reviewers.

Browsing Amazon reviews
Browsing Amazon reviews

Browsing Amazon reviews

I’m not a Marty Weintraub fanboy. More of a stalker, really. But you should read this books, and his psychographics articles. You’ll learn a lot.

I usually sort by Most Helpful First, to avoid wasting time. I look for verified purchasers or folks with Amazon’s special reviewer badges.

Amazon special reviewer badge
Amazon special reviewer badge

Amazon special reviewer badge

I find a verified purchaser and take a look:

Amazon verified purchaser label
Verified Purchasers label

Amazon verified purchaser label

I take a quick look at her reviewer profile:

Amazon reviewer profile

She reads other marketing books and has very similar opinions to mine. I take note. She’s not a top 1000 reviewer, I know. But that’s OK. She’s also reviewed other stuff. That’s actually good. It means she’s not just out there to push her profile as a marketer. I like that.

I can get in touch directly via Amazon: Respond to a few of her reviews, helping to build buzz around her as a reviewer, for example. That’s a great way to strike up a conversation, and help out at the same time.


I can expand my ally pool by:

  • Finding others who review the same products. They may be similar to this reviewer
  • Checking reviewer discussion forums on the site (many retail sites have forums for reviewers) to see if she converses with anyone
  • Checking if she herself has any products, and if so, who’s reviewed those

I can also build on my research by hopping on Google and searching for her name. Search for the name with and without spaces. Many folks use their name without spaces as their Twitter handle. It’ll give you a head start. Then, you can take what you learn and apply it to the other networks.

Then I can follow her on Twitter, etc. I can share interesting stuff she posts, help answer questions, and otherwise build a real relationship. Poof. Ally.


Pretty basic, really. I sift through my results and narrow my list based on:

  • Quality. I want to make sure you’re not spamming your way to fame with lousy writing. On Amazon, for example, I’ll look at the percentage of readers who find reviews helpful. 90%? Great. 30%? I don’t think so.
  • Specialization. If you’ve written 10,000 reviews on everything from bicycles to baby powder, you might still be a good ally, but I need to check

Selected network: Google

Google’s a damned good source of allies, what with its near-infinite index of everything on earth.


I use Google to find specific kinds of conversations, with searches like these:

interview + “[famous person’s name]” if you want to find folks who interviewed a major personality. The interviewers could be allies. For example, interview + “neil degrasse tyson”

ama + “[famous person’s name]” will find ‘ask me anything’ threads for a major personality in your space. For example, ama + “neil degrasse tyson”

article + “[topic]” is great, too.

Note that ‘ama’ tends to work best for somewhat glamorous or fan-filled fields. It’ll be hard to find anything under ama + “eggplant.” I tried.

On the other hand, interview + “alpaca farming” worked rather well.

Alpaca Farming Interviews! For real!
Alpaca Farming Interviews! For real!

Alpaca Farming Interviews! For real!

If you want to get more meta and see an actual example, try article + “influencer research.”


I look at the first 2-3 pages of search results. I also look at the interviewers and those who asked questions in the AMA. They’re my potential allies. I’ll also bounce back and forth between the other networks, finding friends of friends.


It’s hard to narrow down this group without digging through AMAs, interviews and other digital gatherings one-by-one. I reallllly don’t want to do that, so I’ll try a few other things, first. Look for:

  • Relevance. I once accidentally did an interview with a site that sold umbrellas. Except it wasn’t umbrellas. Sometimes, interviewers fib, and you’re careless, and you end up being link/ego/tweet bait. So, when you find an interviewer, make sure they’re legit before you add them to the ally list.
  • Quality. A little like quality, above, but make sure the writing is solid, they can spell ‘license’ and they use the right their there
  • Plagiarism. Make sure it’s not a copy. If it is, treat as directed

Method 3: Twitter

A lot of people start and finish their influencer research on Twitter. You could do worse. There’s a lot of great data in there. For me, it’s one of several tools, but it’s still awesome.

As I was writing this, I realized I could do an entire article just on Twitter. I tried to trim this back, but Twitter really does have some amazing tools. Just don’t get addicted. Mix in the others.


If I’m starting from scratch, I’ll kick things off with Twitter’s “who to follow” tool. It’s not perfect, but it can help.

Twitter's who to follow tool is a good research aid
Twitter's who to follow tool is a good research aid

Twitter's who to follow tool is a good research aid

Then, I can compare a recommended person to myself using Followerwonk:

Comparing followers in Followerwonk
Comparing followers in Followerwonk

Comparing followers in Followerwonk

@paulmay I hope it’s OK that I’m digging into your Twitter life in public.

A small overlap is good! That’s a nice, small audience I can look at. It verifies that we have a chunk of followers in common, but we’re not freaky marketing Stepford Wives. It also means a lot more potential allies among followers we do not have in common.


Now, I can grab that list of 373 followers, and look at them.

I can also grab the followers we do not have in common, and see if any of them have bios or other information that implies they’ll be great allies.

I can dig through Twitter data lots of other ways:

  • Look at allies’ followers who do not also follow me
  • Look at the followers’ followers
  • Look at the followers for an industry rock star, and see if any of them are good potential allies

This is about quality, not quantity. Someone with 20,000 followers may be a terrible ally. Maybe they’re too busy to ever read anything I post. Maybe 19,999 of their followers are bots. Or maybe they just despise me. Just never assume more followers is better.


Twitter is the hardest place to focus, because you can find so many people to follow. When I’ve got lots of data, it’s Excel to the rescue. I download a CSV from Followerwonk (I promise, they don’t pay me a dime):

Twitter allies CSV
Twitter allies CSV

Twitter allies CSV

To find allies, I’m going to look at:

  1. When they last tweeted
  2. Total number of tweets they’ve sent
  3. Number of tweets that contain URLs (those are citations, which is what I’d prefer)
  4. Percentage of tweets that have @contacts in them
  5. Social authority

Using those criteria, rows 1, 3 and 4 are great potential allies. They all frequently tweet when compared to audience size. They’ve all tweeted recently. They cite content at least 30% of the time (% w/ URLs).

Now, I’ll use Followerwonk’s Analyze Their Tweets tool to check who they most often mention. This person already is an ally:

This person already cites me. A lot.
This person already cites me. A lot.

This person already cites me. A lot.

I should probably say thanks, if I haven’t already.

Here’s someone who isn’t an ally yet, or if they are, they don’t tweet about me very much. Sniff. Who do they talk about? Take a look:

This person doesn't tweet about me yet
This person doesn't tweet about me yet.

This person doesn't tweet about me yet.

Someone’s got a face-snapping coming.

And what do they talk about? I’ll take a quick glance at their Tweet stream and find out. In this case, I found they post lots of marketing stuff, so this is a great ally. I’ll follow them straightaway.

Method 4: Facebook

Well, duh. Facebook has the most powerful (if not the only) social graph search capability out there. Social Graph Search is so damned cool and so damned clumsy that I want to squeal with delight and slam my head in a car door every time I use it. Still, it’s too good to skip.

ind & Expand

For this, I’ll pick two interests of mine and do a search:

Facebook Social Graph search
Facebook Social Graph search

Facebook Social Graph search

That’s pretty cool. Facebook sifts through users and finds the overlaps. Alas, after that it gets annoying in a hurry. For example, it’ll show 1 million+ matches, and then list only 10. Or, it’ll show 1 million+ matches and then show ‘none found’ when you try to list them. Like I said: Annoying.

But persistence pays off. I tried a few different searches and got a list of folks who have exquisite taste:

Facebook search result. Look at all those cool people.
Facebook search result. Look at all those cool people.

Facebook search result. Look at all those cool people.


Some of these folks are already my friends (why wouldn’t they be!). Time for some filtering.

Filtering for new friends
Filtering for new friends

Filtering for new friends

I can zip down this list and add folks as friends as desired. I can also get pickier, filtering by city. That can get me some fantastic matches. I recommend you play around with it. You’ll find lots of good allies.

Then I can follow them on Twitter, too, and consider whether any of their friends might be potential friends, too.

Method 5: Google+

Ah, Google+. You’re like that one aloof person we all dated. The one that we liked a lot, but made us so insecure we tried too hard.

Google+ has a fantastic interest graph. I know it does. But it’s inscrutable.

There is one saving grace. Google+ provides a tool that lets you expand your search: Ripples. If a post got re-shared, you can click ‘Ripples’ to see who the amplifiers were.


I usually start with a hashtag or keyword search in ‘people or pages’ or ‘communities:’

A hashtag search. Yes, I'm obsessed with 100-pound rodents
Hashtag search

A hashtag search. Yes, I'm obsessed with 100-pound rodents.

Then I’ll look at posters within that topic. The top posters are often in a whole different social strata, and the odds that I can get their attention equal zilch. Le sigh.

Expand & Focus

Fortunately, I can use ripples to find anyone who shared their stuff. First, click the little arrow that appears when you roll over the top-right corner of the post:

Click to see ripples
Click to see ripples

Click to see ripples

Note that you’ll only see ‘View Ripples’ if the post has been shared. No shares, no ripples.

Once you click, you’ll see the ripples. Pretty neat:



There you go. I can take a look at those sharers, looking for great potential allies. Smaller circles had less influence. I can gauge the right balance between influence and accessibility. I can even download all of their profiles using the Scraper Chrome extension.

Best plugin ever: Scraper for Chrome

Best plugin ever: Scraper for Chrome

Now I can zip through them, scanning profiles and figuring out who I’d like to add to the pool.

I can also research the same people on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Given Google+’s, er, quirks, that’s probably the better way to go.

You can get fancier, using the Google+ API to pull all accounts with certain interests, etc. It’s definitely possible. I built a horrific monstrosity that did it, until it nearly melted my Google APIs account down. My creation turned against me. It haunts me to this day.

Ongoing research

Your best allies are the ones you already have. Don’t squander good will.

Sometimes, people re-share your stuff without knowing you because it’s, you know, good stuff. You need to conduct regular audits— see my Twitter audit for an example.

You should know who your friends are. And be nice to them. It’s a lot easier to keep friends than find new ones.

That sounds horribly cynical, I know. It’s the truth, nevertheless. Ongoing research matters.

Great. Now what?

Once you’ve chosen your allies, it’s time for the real work: Conversing, helping them as much as you’d like to be helped, and generally giving a crap. Don’t treat them as receptacles for templated messages and auto-replies. Lend a hand and ask for one.


Someday, I’ll get my big break. I’ll have a nice dinner with Patrick Stewart where I spend two hours wowing him with my insights. After that, he’ll slap me on the back and say, “Dammit, Ian, why doesn’t everyone already know about you! I’m going to go out and start tweeting the crap out of your latest book right now!!!!”

Even then, it’ll be my allies who keep me in Scotch and scones. Build and nurture your allies. Help them grow, and they’ll help you back.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. I agree. I dont like the “rockstar” approach to ads. It makes me feel like the celebrity has reached a low point that they have to sell their time selling others’ goods. Plus I always wonder if THEY THEMSELVES believe in what they are seling and saying. Not to mention, one could get offended thinking “do they think I’m so shallow and unintelligent that I’m going to go buy this just because [insert rockstar name] says it’s a good product/service?”
    sandy @ WorkadoApp

    1. Hi Sandy,
      Well, if they do, they’re wrong!
      To be fair, the rockstar endorsement is a legit way to build trust. We tend to trust the folks we admire. If Robert Downey Jr. tells me “This is a great car!” I have to admit, I get a brief “I want that!”
      Then I realize the car costs 10x what I can afford, and it’s all good.

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