My grandfather used to tell a story about a grande dame, Lady Something-or-other, who he knew in the late 1930s.

One evening he was one of a number of guests at a dinner hosted by this lady.

After a while, there was a lull in the conversation. It was quickly filled by the booming voice of the hostess, who indicated her husband as she spoke.

“The problem with him,” she boomed, “is that he cannot maintain an ERECTION.”

I don’t know who she was, but her story lives on 80 years later.

Were she alive today, our grande dame would – in the rather tedious terminology of social media – be regarded as an influencer.

Take a look at this hierarchy of influence that Seth Godin came up with, and then we’ll look at it in terms of the lady’s story about her husband’s erection problems.

Okay. I think you could argue that:

  • True fans are the people who witnessed the story and liked it
  • Fans are those who pass the story on. Today they would write boilerplate blog posts such as ’10 reasons why Lady Something-or-other said her husband couldn’t get an erection.’
  • Sneezers are the people who think the story is funny and tell LOADS of people. Today, they’d be tweeting it like mad.
  • Customers. Actually, my analogy is getting a bit shaky here, but I don’t care in the slightest. I’ll tell you why in a moment.

My point is that the only person who is doing anything original is Lady Something-or-other herself.

She has plenty of money, a vast house, a good social station and – quite frankly – doesn’t give a toss about what people think of her.

But as the story passes down the line, it’s noteworthy only because Lady Something-or-other is an influencer. She’s at the top of the tree, and people look up to her.

People further down the hierarchy, whether you want to call them fans, sneezers or anything else you like, are just passing on second-hand goods. Amusing ones, but second hand nonetheless. It doesn’t matter what the hierarchy is.

And I think there’s a lesson here. You don’t become a true influencer by wanting to be one. You become one only if you have something different to say and you couldn’t give two hoots how influential you are.

So instead of writing posts that list 10 reasons why people should or shouldn’t do things (how many millions are on the web these days?), just stop giving a toss.

My grandfather understood that too. Referring to a former pupil of his who was writing a book on the law relating to animals, he said:

“Oh that. He’s writing a book on 20 ways your cat can sue you.”

He was nearly right. You can get a copy here.

Incidentally, I’ve never read it.