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To be more influential, get on good side of influential customers

"Kevin Smith: Too Fat for 40" handout

At a recent marketing conference in Toronto, an employees with the Ontario government noted that her department goes through and checks all of its Twitter followers manually to find out which are the most influential – that is, which followers themselves have the most followers, or are otherwise most likely to influence others.

Needless to say, the process is labour- and time-intensive.

Still, it illustrates just how important it is for organizations to find out which of their clients or customers are most likely to let people know if they're pleased, or displeased, with that organization's behaviour.

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In this series, we've looked at how small- and medium-sized businesses can raise their level of influence in social media. We've listed some of the tools available for companies to expand and monitor their social circles, and learn what their customers are saying about them.

But for many companies, the most important part of becoming more influential in social media circles is first identifying which of their customers are themselves influential, and then making sure to get on their good side.

There are plenty of tools out there for companies looking to find out which of their followers are the most important, or at least have the loudest voices.

Services such as Socialbakers keep lots of statistics on the influence level of various social media users.

(Surprisingly, according to Socialbakers, the most influential brand on Twitter is Whole Foods Market, which beats out Facebook. Whole Foods' rise to first place likely has a lot to do with the fact that it follows about 560,000 more people than the Facebook account does, and has tweeted 20,000 more times. Not so surprisingly, the most influential person on Twitter, according to Socialbakers, is Lady Gaga).

One a business identifies its most influential customers, how it goes about treating them involves a fine balance.

Companies such as Research In Motion Ltd. often hold special events where they showcase their latest products to a small group of high-value customers, including tech bloggers and celebrities.

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For the company, offering such perks is worth the potential ripple effect, when all those influential people go off and tell their own social circles how great the product is.

But taking that approach can backfire if done too overtly. Some celebrities on Twitter have previously outed companies that offered to pay them cash to say something nice about the brand.

Even though many of those same celebrities often sign product spokesperson deals – which entail essentially the same agreement – they sometimes treat Twitter as more personal than business.

And just as influential customers can give a business a huge boost by talking it up on-line, the opposite is also true.

Perhaps the most famous example of this took place last year, when director Kevin Smith was booted off a Southwest Airlines flight for being too fat.

Mr. Smith quickly flooded his Twitter account with angry rants about the airline (at the time, he had one of the biggest followings of any celebrity on Twitter).

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Even though Southwest eventually apologized, the Twitter fight turned into a drawn-out saga, and for weeks, anyone doing even a cursory Web search for the airline couldn't help but hear about the "too fat to fly" controversy.

The Southwest Airlines saga illustrates a point many small businesses would do well to learn as they try to grow and maintain a positive reputation on social media sites: If you treat your most influential customers well, or badly, they're going to make sure everyone hears about it either way.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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