The Hidden Social Networks Are Most Influential

If you’re a marketer trying to spread an idea through online social networks, you may be better off disregarding people with the greatest number of connections.

That’s according to Daniel Romero, a scientist at the Center for Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, and HP Labs, who recently sent me his team’s latest paper on the online social networks that “truly matter.” According to the report, the volume of social network connections a person has is a weak indicator of how prolific a poster someone is. What really matters are actual friends. This was based on an analysis of 309,740 Twitter users, who, on average, published 255 posts, had 85 followers, and followed 80 other users.

The authors explain: “Even when using a very weak definition of ‘friend,’ we find that Twitter users have a very small number of friends compared to the number of followers and followees they declare. (A friend here is defined as anyone who a user has directed a post, or ‘@username,’ to at least twice.) This implies the existence of two different networks: a very dense one made up of followers and followees, and a sparser and simpler network of actual friends. The latter proves to be a more influential network in driving Twitter usage since users with many actual friends tend to post more updates than users with few actual friends. On the other hand, users with many followers or followees post updates more infrequently than those with few followers or followees.”

The authors concluded: “[S]cholars, advertisers and political activists, see online social networks as an opportunity to study the propagation of ideas, the formation of social bonds and viral marketing, among others. This view should be tempered by our findings that a link between any two people does not necessarily imply an interaction between them. As we showed in the case of Twitter, most of the links declared within Twitter were meaningless from an interaction point of view. Thus the need to find the hidden social network; the one that matters when trying to rely on word-of-mouth to spread an idea, a belief, or a trend.”

To me, a marketer observing all sorts of attempts to crack the code of influence and message dispersion, the gem in this report is the statement that “a link between any two people does not necessarily imply an interaction between them.” This presents serious challenges to popular assumptions (and sometimes blind conviction) of influence and link authority. These assumptions have severely informed social-media marketing over the past five years.

To be sure, Twitter is not reflective of all social networks; each has its nuances. However, most are vulnerable to false assumptions that have haunted traditional media venues for years: mainly, that audience and engagement can be implied through opt-in or subscriber status. Think of the dozens of magazines and newspapers piling up on my living room coffee table. I suppose those print publications count me among its followers, and they tout that to advertisers and target me accordingly. But the fact is they have little meaning in my life because I barely pay attention to them; I don’t recall even passively opting into most of them. (However, they do a good job of getting the fireplace roaring.)

And the same goes for Twitter. As of this writing, I have 955 followers, and I have little knowledge about who most are. Conversely, I’m following 584 people, and I pay meaningful attention to around 100. My social connections are not indicative of my merit or propensity to spread an idea. For me, core Twitter value comes mostly from the 50 or so friends with whom I regularly interact. Upwards of 3,000 posts, I write mostly for this group, and they’re most likely to respond to me. That’s the network that resonates — the one that truly matters.

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