Yesterday we looked at the motivations for why people engage in different social venues; this morning I came across an interesting new study looking at what typeof social network best influences behaviour.
Because it’s all very well if a network spreads information like wildfire, but if that information doesn’t prompt users to do something – buy the product, sign up for the event, stop smoking, change the way they talk about the brand – it’s all so much worthless WOM.
The study, from MIT assistant professor of system dynamics and economic sociology Damon Centola, looked at the spread of health-related behaviour in two different types of social networks – one based around ‘long ties’, or many distant connections, and one based on denser clusters of more closely connected people.
Sociologists have traditionally believed that long ties are the key to the rapid and broad spread of word of mouth, an insight reinforced by a Guardian study presented at a WOMMA UK briefing last year. However, Centola found that to change behaviour, you’re much better off focusing on clustered networks.
It makes human common sense. It’s easy for us to quickly pass on a piece of content via a loosely connected contact; but to understand something more complex, or change ingrained behaviour, we’ll need exposure more than once, and from trusted and emotionally impactful sources. There is more work to be done, but as Centola says,
“For about 35 years, wisdom in the social sciences has been that the more long ties there are in a network, the faster a thing will spread. It’s startling to see that this is not always the case.”
The study is intended to help improve the design of effective health networks, but it has obvious implications for marketing. We’ve always emphasised the need for multiple entry points with a word of mouth campaign, in order to foster both deep and broad engagement. This ensures rapid visibility but also concrete behaviour change, leading to sales, subscriptions and changing attitudes.
This kind of insight is invaluable in tailoring engagement, according to both the brand’s priority and the nature of the community. Great stuff.
“Mass media is the only way to reach the masses. The masses are the only way to get elected.
How could one possibly have a conversation with tens of millions of people? (If you know, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime gig )
Obama’s real success was to use web & social media to raise huge amounts of money, not to get voted in. That that money was then spent on traditional campaign media such as TV, radio and print – to reach a far larger constituency than ever existed on Twitter – is the real story.
(That the tech & media in-crowd forget how statistically insignificant they are is, sadly, another).”
It got me thinking about a fundamental question often asked about social, and in particular about so called ‘social CRM’ – “How does it scale?” – And the real answer is that it doesn’t! As James accurately points out, it is very difficult to have good quality, personal conversations with millions of people (let alone tens of millions), so in that case James must be right: the only way to reach the masses to, say, get elected president or to build awareness of a new product or service, is via traditional media. Certainly these guys think so:
But that misses the point. What we do – word of mouth – isn’t about having millions of conversations with millions of people, that is impossible; it’s about starting conversations…
The difference is this: a good WOM campaign isn’t something you talk to the brand about, it is something you talk to your friends about and they talk to their friends about,. The great thing about this: it’s infinitely scalable and anything can be a source of conversation as long as its fun and disruptive.
So lets revisit James’ example: Obama. He didn’t just succeed in raising lots of small donations via social, he succeeded in getting people talking, to each other about him. He was many things and love him or hate him, the voters talked about him. This created anticipation, excitement and ultimately: votes.
As you can see, propagation planning is in essence word of mouth by any other name.
We love the emphasis it puts on the influencee rather than the influencer, as relflected in Farley’s blog tagline, ‘Plan not for the people you reach, but the people that they reach.‘
This is something that I’ve spend a lot of time discussing with Scott Gould, who recently explained Why Spreadability Beats Reach for WOM UK, and here at 1000heads we often blog our thoughts on this topic as everything we do aims to engage with both breadth and depth. As I like to say, our focus is on the passionate many, rather than the celebrated few. Theorising aside, it makes much better business sense.
A WOM ripple can be defined as the spread and exposure of a piece of conversation or content across online and offline scapes, as it is relayed, repurposed and used to inspire further conversations. There’s lots of commentary devoted to identifying effective ripple triggers, such as the whitepaper on Spreadable Media I mentioned yesterday; key qualities include the relevance, creativity, adaptability, originality, informative value and emotional engagement of the trigger, as well as who is distributing it, where, and why.
However, it can be notoriously difficult to help clients envisage exactly how that conversational trigger then ignites in the space, accelerating through search; social networks, communities and interconnections; and aggregation, distribution and bookmarking tools. With the right software and research layer, it’s possible to measure the numbers, but it’s still tricky to illustrate the extraordinary, unexpected and synaptic spread of ideas and images across a host of different communities and scapes.
For example, brands rarely take into account offline visual cues. Mike R relates the story of his new jet-powered car cleaner, which quickly appeared on several driveways on his street without him uttering a word of recommendation to anyone. We’ve all had similar experiences; I’ve been looking for months for a pair of boots I saw on a girl walking down High Holborn. Any truly pervasive word of mouth project should be finding ways to tap into these incredibly powerful offline triggers and platforms for the WOM ripple, even if they’re a little less definable to a CEO.
The concept of the Social Graph has historically been used to examine personal interconnections online, and Beth Kanter’s new post The Conversation Graph: The Social Life of A Blog Post attempts an update by examining various tools that track the journey of a piece of content. But there’s still no clear illustration of how a trigger spreads both on and offline, with all the corresponding complexities and unexpected factors that invariably pop up when you’re dealing with human behaviour – not least the fact that content spreads between people who aren’t visibly connected.
To accompany the quantifiable figures, there’s a real need for some in-depth case studies, taking individual examples of a product, service or brand experience and tracking in minute detail how it spreads. This should use social media measurement tools but also interview and examination of the family, community, social context and behaviour of the person involved – as well as where, how and if it translates into a sale. Watch this space.