You’ve heard of the wisdom of the crowd. It works: crowds tend to be smarter than the individuals of which they’re made up. Ironically, recent evidence suggests that even crowds can be influenced by a certain few charmers… right back into mediocrity.

Today, great influencers matter more than ever. Yes, we’re talking social media – but this would have happened anyway (and did.) This is about the time one mentions The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell‘s seminal must-read for anyone who’s wondered how trends go mainstream. (Wired editor Chris Anderson is another industry guru now focused on crowdsourcing.) Today, if you’re like me — in which case, ease off on the espresso — you’ve been asked for your Klout score by at least one or two prospective employers. (Klout measures the influence of your social network — I’ve found it entirely too reliant on Facebook, but it’s a neat tool — and offers special perks to high influencers, in the hopes of developing powerful brand advocates.)

What I love about social influence is this: it’s always been a — no, the — key to success in business. It’s just that in the internet age, we’re getting much, much better at quantifying it.

And make no mistake: while the Googles, Facebooks, and Groupons of the world turn out to be [gasp!] massive data-mining factories (consumers can perform our own version at comScore,) just remember that it’s an individual consumer’s free will to choose what product to champion — or change, or abandon — that will elevate a given brand. Which is why today’s best brands do one thing even better than mine your data: they listen.

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