Academia Meets Social Marketing

Marketing has always had an uneasy relationship with academia. However, with the rise of social media and its transformative impact on digital marketing, there’s a new imperative to look towards academia — to understand how people form networks, influence each other and organize into online communities.

This article highlights some of the thinking we should look towards while navigating the uncharted territories of marketing on the social Web. It is impossible to be comprehensive, so treat this as a sampling encompassing some key thoughts in academia and how they should impact marketing.

Every piece of academic research covering social networks invariably has an opinion on Mark Granovetter’s pioneering work on the strength of weak ties. He showed that in a given network, the weakest ties were more directly responsible for the spread of information. As we market to communities online versus individuals acting in isolation, the implication is we must also focus on the people most loosely connected and engaged in those communities versus just the strongest ones.

Our empirical understanding of these ties and who exactly matters within a social network comes from Linton Freeman and his research into centrality (the people with the most influence in a social network). He’s given us the mathematical models to also map how information is disseminated through these people. As our social graphs get more transparent, more marketers will focus on analyzing these social graphs to understand which people influence and share information the most. Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft are digging into this area.

Moving onto a broader view, the findings of two giants in this space beg mention. Manuel Castells and Barry Wellman. Castells argued that one should use the Internet to think locally but act globally, stressing that we live in a global village where communication technologies allow us to reach the world. For marketers this means that in a socially connected digital world, we can and should expect successful local-based campaigns to still propagate around the world. Castells researched how this can happen.

Wellman’s landmark research dispelled the myth that social behavior online leads to social isolation in the physical world. His “Netville” study conducted with Keith Hampton demonstrated how online social interaction strengthened neighboring and civic involvement. This research is important as we can use it to better understand how digital marketing efforts can correlate with offline ones. Here it is still worth noting Howard Rheingold’s research, which highlighted that users reveal their identities, construct meaning and share experiences in unique ways online.

Wellman’s theories about networked individualism are also key. He demonstrated that users of Internet-based technologies are less tied to local groups and belong to geographically scattered networks. This theory is gaining increasing attention in marketing and PR circles as we explain social media’s explosive growth.

Moving more directly into how social influence works, Duncan Watts, an academic at Columbia University and Yahoo, has debunked the myth around key influencers — that if you focus your marketing efforts on the key influencers, you will be able to reach the masses through them. In a series of controversial “small world” experiments over the last few years, he’s been able to demonstrate that key influencers aren’t anymore influential than ordinary people. His research has demonstrated that for information to spread, it is much more important for it to be susceptible than for it to be transmitted through a supposedly influential and well-connected person. This dramatic finding turns influencer marketing and word of mouth marketing on its head.

Another controversial but significant academic is Robert Putnam who defined two types of social capital: bonding capital (among people who like each other) and bridging capital (between people different to one another), emphasizing that one isn’t more important than another but that they strengthen each other. His research into communities and how trust increases with diversity serves to demonstrate that when companies can create new, diverse communities just as Apple has successfully done, they stand to gain a lot. Diverse communities online are more valuable than homogenous ones.

Talking about trust and growth of online communities and social networks, more recent research by Lars Backstrom has shown that a person is more likely to join a social network if friends of that person are not only on it but closely linked together as well. Having closely connected friends already on the social network builds trust and confidence in it. This is another proof point demonstrating how important it is in marketing efforts to form and reach communities of users that know each other well rather than just focus on disparate users that have collected online.
Brian Butler showed us that network size has a complex influence on a social network, implying that the more people who joint one doesn’t necessarily mean that still more will. More members meant more losses too as communication activity increased. This may explain MySpace’s stagnation relative to Facebook’s continued explosive growth. As marketers look towards new social platforms, this research serves as a reminder that when a network grows too quickly, there can be downsides to it as well.

Two recent researchers are creating a storm in everything social. They are Danah Boyd, mostly for her work on comparing MySpace users to Facebook users and highlighting class differences, and Clay Shirky, whose recent book Here Comes Everybody explains how people self-organize online to achieve mutually beneficial ends. At the very least, they show that even with financial support and well-planned strategies, sometimes marketers cannot predict or coalesce groups of people into acting in a certain why or participate in a specific social platform.

Researchers’ work can and should have an outsized influence on marketing on the social Web. There are other important thinkers from whom we can learn, like Robin Mansell, Marc Smith and Zizi Papacharissi.

Whether it is about social networks and social influence or the creation and growth of online communities, academic research can guide us as we navigate the uncharted territories of the social Web and online communities. And the research can provide us with guidance on not just how to market and create communities but also on how to participate and advertise in them as well.

Shiv Singh is vp, global social media lead at Razorfish.