Facebook has secured a patent with the United States Patent & Trademark Office for an algorithm that makes it easier to identify which individual users are carrying abnormally high levels of influence on a given topic.

According to the patent document, it “comprises identifying the first users who caused the non-zero rate of sharing of the element of information to locally increase significantly.” In simple terms, that means that Facebook could watch the rate at which a piece of content is engaged with and, should there be a sudden spike in interest or activity around that content, determine which users were responsible for that increase.

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The patent makes it easier for brands to identify influential people, and to encourage them to promote their product, message or cause without going through layers of PR representatives, image rights managers and legal departments. Instead, brands would be able to tailor social media advertising specifically at people who carry influence in a given field.

And of course, Facebook has the option to charge advertisers to target just those influencers, meaning that brands could pay a premium to target their message purely at a celebrity, prominent blogger or user in the hope that they will share the content for them.

How is this different to other ‘influencer’ algorithms?

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Facebook isn’t the first company to receive a patent for so-called ‘influencer marketing’. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have all received patents for similar systems, but those systems largely work on the basis of volume and quality of followers or connections.

Facebook’s system actually measures how many of users followers actually shared the content that they shared. It means that even somebody with a comparatively small following could be considered an ‘influencer’ if a significant proportion of that following shared that person’s post. That makes the model much more compelling for advertisers looking to target particular niches.

The other key difference in the Facebook patent is that it identifies and distinguishes between “influencers” – people who share and increase the reach of a piece of content, and “experts” – the originators of the content that they shared. Brands will therefore have the option of targeting either the creators of a piece of content or the promoters of the content – or even both.

How might it work in practice?

Major brands in a particular niche will be able to actively target and advertise to influential people within that space.

The patent application references an example using Canon.

“In particular embodiments, experts and influencers may be identified for any subject matter, field, or type of product, and each subject matter, field, or type of product may have any number of experts and influencers. The field, subject matter, or type of product may be set at any granularity. For example, experts and influencers may be identified for all types of digital cameras, or only for single-lens reflex (SLR) digital cameras, or only for SLR digital cameras made by Canon, Inc., or only for full frame SLR digital cameras made by Canon, Inc.”

Canon would be able to specifically target ‘experts’ with a particular message (such as a teaser for a new product), and influencers with a separate message. That has the potential to be much more effective than simply target people with a stated interest in “photography”.

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