Fast Company Influence Project: Pyramid Scheme or Genius?

By Erik Qualman

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Link baiting, pyramid scheme, marketing genius?  Yes.  Fast Company’s  Influence Project is a little bit of everything.  The Influence Project is promoted by Fast Company as finding the most influential person.

fast company influence project

Essentially, the person that drives the most traffic to  before August 15 will have the largest picture in the November issue of the magazine.   My guess is that person will also appear on the cover.  To date over 18,000 people have signed onto the project.  It’s unclear if everyone will have their picture in the magazine (size of picture based on influence)  or if only the top influencers will appear.

Bubbly Scottish-Canadian Mari Smith is the current leader and she was wise to start influencing early since your photo grows as the people you invite get others to join (i.e., pyramid in action). Leading up to the November issue, Fast Company is conducting spotlight articles on some of the top influencers like Smith and Scott Monty (Ford).

Mari Smith Influence Project

Mari Smith is currently in the lead/top influencer

In the nature of full disclosure Smith and Monty are also friends of mine.  Also the links in this article will give me influence, but I’ll never surpass Mari since she influenced me.

Whatever you think of the project, it has certainly produced a lot of free PR for Fast Company and will increase traffic for a few months.  Jason Fell at reports that because of the link-clicking aspect associated with the project, Fast Company has seen its traffic spike about 20 percent this month.  Fell also noted that Fast Company Executive Digital Editor Noah Robischon who at the time disclosed “Over 13,000 people have registered so far,” says executive digital editor Noah Robischon, “and it’s growing daily.”  Now over 18,000 have joined and it continues to grow.

Free PR and opinions include: | Dan Costa

“The Fast Company story turns influence into a ponzi scheme, a Flash-enabled popularity contest, and a high tech version of Narcissus’s reflection.”

The New York Times

Fast Company seems to have caught onto the fact that probably a good 50 percent of social networking is ego related and used it to formulate a cracker of a business plan: “The influence project,” is (almost) unapologetically a link baiting pyramid scheme.

Brass Tact Thinking | Amber Nalund

“I really think they missed the mark with The Influence Project, in a big way, and confused the idea of “influence” with ego.

To me, influence isn’t about popularity. Or even reach. It’s about the trust, authority, and presence to drive relevantactions within your community that create something of substance. That last bit is key.”

TechCrunch | Michael Arrington

“We’ve got links to click. Join me in my quest to put Chevy Chase, with an afro, on the cover of Fast Company Magazine. My work will then be done here.

And join us next week at TechCrunch when we’ll hold a contest to see who can click the most ad units on our site. Winner gets called “The Most Awesome Person Online” and we’ll put their picture on our home page for a day! And a free tshirt!”

While there are great arguments on each side of the debate, we do need to credit a traditional magazine for thinking progressively in an attempt to grow traffic and their subscriber base.

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Note – the links in this post are to my profile in the project, and as such “add influence”. If you’d like to check the project out from scratch, use this link.


15 responses to “Fast Company Influence Project: Pyramid Scheme or Genius?

  1. I’m not sure if I like this. What are the consequences and implications to our online behaviour? How would our children conduct themselves once they learn how to use the Internet?

  2. Meet the most deserving influential influential person…Prashanth, an abandoned and abused 11 year old boy who was left in an overcrowded orphanage in India is 79. There are 138M children in the world with a similar story to his and we can all help one click at a time!

    Born in a small village in south India, a precocious child, he often got in trouble. Believing the soul resides in the belly, the religious figure traced a circle around his belly button then up and down his skin creating horizontal and vertical lines with a fire hot iron to remove the demons. Prashanth burned his fingers while trying to stop them. Untreated, they folded over and fused, rendering them unusable.

    Prashanth’s father died, his mother remarried; her new husband refused to raise him. He lived with his Grandmother who was too feeble and poor care for him. He wandered the streets, ending up at the orphanage where we were volunteering. To our surprise, we found out most of these children grow up on the streets becoming beggars, drug addicts, prostitutes, or worse. Many do not survive to their 18th birthday.

    This little boy who is too poor to even have access to the internet derserves to be on top…let Prashanth’s story be told…one child at a time. Prashanth =

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  5. Hey Erik – thank you kindly for the props. I’m glad to see you taking a refreshingly positive and level-headed approach to this project. It sure has been a fascinating journey… in PR/media/marketing and in human behavior and what people think influence is and is not… and how it could/should be measured, etc. etc.

    Frankly, if I had paused to take in all the various opinions and feedback from our peers, I may have reconsidered participating. But it hadn’t occurred to me for one second there could be anything negative about Fast Company’s initiative – everyone gets their pic in the magazine. So, I jumped in with both feet. I still think a really positive spin – with social good – could be integrated.

    Btw, I’m sure you could surpass me even though you joined through my link. Depends on the algorithms; it goes six levels deep. Besides, you’ve certainly influenced me greatly over the years – I continue to show your awesome videos in almost all my talks!!! 🙂

    At the end of the day, no amount of contests or campaigns need affect anyone’s ongoing influence. Just go out and do good.

    Big hugs

    • Mari:

      You’re the best. Keep doing what you do which is making the world a better place. I think the key to this project is to just have fun with it, which you are doing. Thanks for the kind words as well!

      Digital Hugs,


  6. Are we supposed to be promoting ourselves, like we’re in high school and running for student elections, or is it supposed to happen organically?

    I find the website a wee bit confusing (the navigation)

    I was wondering what your take would be on this!
    Thanks E.

    • ABC:

      I agree that the Fast Company Influence site is difficult to navigate and takes too long to load. What’s you figure it out it is pretty cool, but there numbers could easily be 100,000 instead of 18,000 if the site adhered to basic principles of Web design: Speed & Usability

      I hope to win Sergeant at Arms for Student Council 🙂


  7. Sure wish folks wouldn’t not paint broad strokes about MLM and scams. While I am not a MLM gal there are many legitimate businesses that use that business model. It is way too easy to go negative.

    So my question would be what was Fast Company’s objective? Usually if a company is smart, that is what drives which platform they use and how they use it.

    Ego or not, which is part of engaging with people plays a part of any campaign. Since we are human, cannot separate yourself from ego.

    So just like we do not know what was inside Old Spices mind when they developed their campaign, second guessing accomplishes nothing. Will Fast Company be transparent, they have in past, let’s see how this turns out. You always take risk when you try something new and different and you take the criticism then adjust and move forward.

    Mistakes brings about innovation-SHAZAM

  8. I totally agree- it is a little bit of everything. Personally, I don’t like the MLM (multi-level marketing) pyramid- they might as well be selling vitamins & knives! It’s also a very unscientific, 1990’s black hat styled approach to the important topic of influence. But with a nod to the business side of Fast Company, they aren’t really trying to solve the secret metrics of social networking- they’re looking for brand exposure and clicks. They’ve received plenty of both from this scheme.

    One question remains. By playing the ponzi card disguised as truth, has Fast Company positioned itself one step closer to the accuracy of The Onion and thereby removed itself from the forefront of the digital news pulse?

    • Casey: Love that you looked at all sides of the coin on this one and while you don’t agree with the tactic you can see the benefit they are deriving.

      You also pose some great questions that only time will tell.


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