By Peter O'Flynn

In the last fifteen years a new generation of investors and fund managers has emerged seeking social and environmental returns alongside financial returns. But who are the key players?

At CDI, we’ve been using social network analysis to try to better understand the complex network of different players in the impact investing market. We’re finding out how they are connected, by analysing the conversations that are occurring by capturing all tweets (some 5,000 thousand per week) around two key impact investing hashtags (#impactinvesting and #impinv). A main feature of this is to identify the most important players (‘key actors’) within the network. Through assessing the key actors we can generate a deeper insight into how the market thinks about impact, ranging from demand for evidence and how they measure it, to overall sentiment.

How do you define a ‘key actor’?

In any social network this can be considered quite an ambitious task. Imagine in the school playground having to identify the most important child, it may even seem a little odd! What we mean by a ‘key actor’ is someone who shapes the discourse and the conversation that occurs on Twitter. One might imagine that for someone to ‘shape the discourse’ they would have the following features:

  • They have plenty of followers
    More followers means more influence right? Not necessarily. Their relevancy to shaping the discourse of impact investing amongst their mainstream following may not be that high.  For instance, @Forbes may tweet about #impactinvesting, but it can be considered only one, relatively minor part of their coverage through social media to their 9.85Million followers.

  • They tweet regularly about #impactinvesting #impinv
    By tweeting on #impactinvesting at least once a week they are stimulating a response amongst those engaged with the industry. Demonstrating engagement with other industry representatives signals that they are in a position to engage effectively with the market.

  • They are mentioned more than they mention others
    In network analysis terms, these concepts are known as in-degree (being mentioned) and out-degree (mentioning others) respectively. Having high in-degree can be seen as a demonstration that organisations and individuals want to be engaged with you on Twitter, it brings together the notion of a certain authority, or ‘thought-leadership’. High out-degree means that you are referencing others twitter accounts more frequently, this may be because the twitter account is a collating platform, describing and sharing the interests of others. A good example of a Twitter account with a high out-degree would be the UN Social Investment Fun (@UN_SIF) which is a regular re-tweeter of content of others in the industry.  

 Calculating the in-degree and out-degree of a Twitter account.

Calculating the in-degree and out-degree of a Twitter account. Here I have an in-degree of three and an out-degree of five. The higher the in-degree, the more others want to engage with you, signalling over time that you are someone who is of high-standard to the industry, therefore a key player. In this example, I have higher out-degree, demonstrating that I want to engage with the key players in the market.

  • They act as a ‘broker’ between different groups
    For instance, media organisations are great at bringing out the message of a specific sector into the wider public and could therefore be considered brokers in that they are connecting two groups that previously were not connected through their tweets. This is known in the network analysis literature as betweeness centrality.

If we were to develop an equation to gauge the importance of a ‘key actor’ , it may look something like this:

(Followers x Relevancy to Community) + Number of tweets + In-degree + Betweeness Centrality = Key Player

Fortunately, there is an easy method of visualising the importance of key players. Using three measures of network importance (betweeness centrality, in-degree and pagerank) in a scatterplot form allows us to capture and display the critical information needed to identify key players. Through the Pagerank measure (notably used by Google’s search engine), we capture both relevancy and number of followers in the network, thereby representing the equation above in an easily identifiable manner.

Scatterplot of the impact investing twitter accounts based on three key centrality measures: betweeness, pagerank and in-degree.

Scatterplot of the impact investing twitter accounts based on three key centrality measures: betweeness, pagerank and in-degree. Source: Own research

Scatterplot of the impact investing twitter accounts based on three key centrality measures: betweeness, pagerank and in-degree. Divided into four quadrants.

By splitting the diagram into four quadrants, we can develop a clearer picture of what a ‘key actor’ actually means to those involved in the impact investing twitter network. For example:

  • The top left quadrant includes twitter accounts that are considered core to the network.
  • The bottom left quadrant includes accounts that are not key to the network.
  • The bottom right quadrant includes actors that act primarily as brokers.
  • The top right quadrant includes twitter accounts that are considered the main key actors of the network. This is because they can be considered both core members of the network (connected and engaged with other regular tweeters of #impinv and #impactinvesting), but also additionally act as brokers (engage with a wider audience then the core).

Please note that this representation above of the key players is only for that one week of analysis, and not a representation of current market standing.

What are the limitations of looking at key actors in this way?

Obviously being a key actor on Twitter doesn’t necessarily transfer over to real life. Many impact investors (including Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWI), family offices and the some of the world’s most wealth individuals), who typically prefer discretion are unlikely to amass thousands of Twitter followers. In this sense, we are unable to ‘follow the money’. But what we can try to capture, in as transparent a manner as possible, are the key voices within the realm of the wider impact investing network. Twitter social network analysis enables us to see the direction of influential information flows (think of the In-degree and Out-degree). In that sense, it reveals much more than where ‘the money’ is - it captures influence and thought-leadership. Through this research under the Centre for Development Impact, we are able to provide another perspective on how this emergent market is forming.  We are able to capture and share new insights into how the influential ‘key actors’ think about evidence and impact, what impact means to them, how they might measure it, and how their evidence of impact influences future investment decisions.

We’re keen to hear your thoughts on the issues: Who do you see as the key players in impact investing? How are the key players in impact investing dealing with evidencing impact? How do you perceive claims of impact in the impact investing market currently – particularly on the poor and marginalised? What else can social media reveal about the world of impact investing? Feel free to get in touch or respond in the comments below.

Follow us @CDevIimpact. Blog by @Pete_OFlynn

Partner(s): Institute of Development Studies