Go to the bottom drawer in your storage cupboard and dig out an old high school class photo. It can be any year, the daggier the better. Get a non-permanent whiteboard marker out and circle the cool kids (and if you weren’t one of them, now is not the time to pretend, we’re doing important research here). What do you notice? Do they stand out?

I’ll bet they do.

I’ll bet you 50 bucks that even if you went to a strict girls/boys school that allowed virtually no form of unique self expression, the cool kids will stand out like a sore thumb. They’ll have the best looking haircuts (at the time at least), the coolest shoes and the sexiest, most ‘I don’t give a damn’ pouts. They’ll be the best-looking (for the most part), their heads will be tilted at just the right angle. Hell, even their socks will be doing something different.

Now, grab someone else’s school photo, one full of people you’ve never met (use your parents if you can). See if you can pick the cool kids out. You probably won’t score 100% on the test, but I’ll bet you’ll get close.

Cool kids, you see, all stand out. It’s part of being a leader. That’s why generals have more stripes on their shoulders than anyone – so people know they’re the ones to listen to, the ones with the influence.

The internet is a bit like a class photo. You get everyone’s picture of course, but there’s obviously more to being cool than how you look. In high school it’s where you hang out after school that counts. Who you date, how many people came to your birthday party, what sport you play and whether you’re captain of the football team, or captain of the chess club. Funnily enough, that’s exactly the sort of information people store in their online profiles. They may be out of high school, but the information they display next to their avatar can tell you enough about a person to know how likely they are to spread positive word of mouth about your brand.

Here’s the process we use to figure out our client’s key influencers:

Step one: Find the people already talking about your brand

It seems obvious, but the people most likely to spread positive word of mouth about your brand online are the ones who already are. Use a social media monitoring tool to find the conversations and either pay for one that rates sentiment and builds influencer profiles, or do the hard yards and make a spreadsheet for yourself. The more positive – the better. If they’re a massive fan of your brand they’ll be more than happy to spread the word. The same is true for the reverse – if they hate you, they won’t be shy letting the world know. If you can’t find anyone talking about your brand that’s OK, just move on to step two.

Step two: Find the people talking about your competitors

Do exactly the same thing as you did in step one, but change the names of the brands around. Fans of Coke definitely won’t love Pepsi and fans of one football team probably hate another, but they’re still strong influencers for your brand. Like the old saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Step three: Find the people talking about your industry

Social media monitoring applies here too. Use keywords relevant to your industry and find the people discussing the issues you face. People having general discussions about whatever it is you do usually won’t be as compelled to spread the good word about your brand as those who love you (or your competitor), but they’re the next best thing.

Step four: Figure out their social reach

You should have a list of people by now (even if they all have names like Kitty1981 and MrFantaPants). Cut and past their names into column A of a spreadsheet and then write their number of Twitter followers, Facebook friends, MySpace buddies and so on and so forth in the columns to the right. Get on Technorati and write in their blog scores, write down their number of LinkedIn connections and use any other relevant metrics you can find to figure out the raw number of people on the receiving end of their musings.

Step five: Find out who is actually listening to them

Ashton Kutcher has over a million Twitter followers but most of them are probably voyeurs. Just because he says jump doesn’t mean anyone asks ‘how high’? The best way to determine someone’s true influence over their peers depends on the social networks they are active in, how old they are and what you want to get out of them, but here’s a few tips:

  • Use a tool like RetweetRank to figure out how often what they say is quoted by other people
  • If you can see their Facebook profile, look at events they’ve created and see what percentage of their friends accepted invitations
  • Check out their MySpace wall and see how often friends get in touch with them
  • See how many recommendations they have on LinkedIn
  • See how many posts they’ve made in forums, and
  • See how many comments they get on their blog.

A few good social media monitoring tools can do this for you, but they’ll set you back around $1,500 a month. If that’s out of your price range, get in there and start copying and pasting yourself.

Step six: Crunch

Hopefully by now you’ve got goals set out in your social media strategy giving you some directions for moving forward. Figure out where you want to go and then start working out which people on your list of influencers are going to help you get there. If you make ice cream you’ll probably want to get the kids with the most MySpace friends on side. If you’re a professional resume writer LinkedIn is obviously going to bear you more fruit. Deciding how to start involving these people in your PR strategy requires a bit of forethought, but if you remember the golden rule of social media – treat your customers the same way you’d treat your friends – you’ll probably end up with a lot of them. You might even become one of the cool kids.