Activate Social Networks

Reach Influentials. Cultivate a Community.

In 1962, Everett Rogers wrote a seminal marketing book titled Diffusion of Innovations, which present a core concept he called the “adoption cycle.”

Basically, the foray of a product into a market spaces is sequential — moving from one stage to the next through audience pass-along. Those who adopt products earlier pass the news to those who want to buy later.

Rogers had specific terms for the participants in each stage, starting with “innovators” and ending with “laggards.” In between were the “early adopters,” “early majority,” and “late majority.”

Marketing is, and always has always been, about activating a social system for commercial benefit. Rogers made this point abundantly clear by simply switching from viewing the generic lifecycle of a product’s stage of maturity to customer behavior in a social setting.

The effects of doing so were profound. By establishing an analytical framework for social systems, he demonstrated that there is great risk in treating potential buyers as if they are one mass market.

Segments consisted of individuals with different backgrounds, interests, and motivations. They may all be potential buyers, Rogers said, but they buy on their own terms, when they want, when they’re ready. In revealing this risk, he opened the door to an entire research genre called segmentation.

Rogers also pointed out that social systems grew as the result of stories being passed from one segment to another. Messages, packaged as stories, take on an even higher level of personal interest and relevancy — facilitating pass-along.

Brilliantly, segments were based on both a readiness to buy and a readiness to tell. However, segmentation is time consuming and very expensive if your plan is to establish a broad market presence.

More recently, Internet technology has emerged with the promise to automate the previously considerable marketing effort needed to activate social networks. Technology, by providing both a community platform and the tools to easily encourage pass-along, supercharged the principles presented in Rogers’ model. Word of mouth can now spread much more quickly, it was found, and social marketing is now considered a fundamental tactic for launching and promoting almost any new product.

But, activating a social network takes considerable effort. In Rogers’ adoption cycle, communication seems to flow smoothly from left to right, expanding sequentially to cover every corner of the market. Drop a rock in a pond on one side, and the ripples eventually reach every point on the shoreline. It’s the right concept, but real world has significant friction and obstacles that get in the way.

Word-of-mouth communication has always been problematic for marketers, for two primary reasons. First, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to control what people say. And second, most consumers have a much more limited span of influence than you might think.

To manage the first issue, precise messaging is paramount. Not only must the essential components be right, but they must be packaged in a form that is highly portable. What kind of “form” would that be? Messages have to be packaged as stories if you want them to be communicated proactively. Stories are the currency of human communications, not individual messages.

Regarding span of influence, most developers are surprised at how limited it can be. In one study by the Mintel International Group Ltd. of online buyers (with whom technology is most enabled), researchers found that when a recommendation had demonstrated influence over a purchase, 34% of the time the recommendation came from a friend or relative. And 25% of the time, the recommendation came from a spouse or domestic partner.

In this day and age, technology may grease the skids, but it doesn’t change human nature. According to research organization RoperASW, one out of ten people in the U.S. are part of an “influentials” group that favors technology products. These are consumers who buy years ahead of the rest of the population.

Influenctials are basically the same as early adopters, both in terms of profile and population. Rogers said early adopters made up 13.5% of the U.S. market, and he puts the influentials figure at 10%. They are broadly dispersed and peppered across the country, with only a somewhat heavier concentration in urban areas. That means that in any neighborhood, early adopters can live right next door to laggards.

Influentials are the hub of a group of people representing a small social system. For one reason or another, they are considered a source of news and opinion. Maybe they have special expertise in a field, or a leadership role in the community.

For news to spread, one of the people in an influential’s group must also be an influential in at least another social system grouping. Odds are each influential needs to tell up to nine other people in the social grouping for a jump to occur from one small system to the next.

Plausible? Sure, some products with high emotional impact might get this level of support. But more likely, influentials will tell only a handful of people — three or four — about a product they really like. Since this ratio might not find the next influential needed to jump social systems, there is the potential for major breaks in the communication chain.

So, the more accurate analogy is that when you drop a rock in a pond, it’s a pond full of mud. There are ripples, but they don’t go very far, and they die out quickly. The only way to hit all points on the shoreline is to drop many rocks into the pond. And the only way to do that is by using supporting media of some sort.

Even Facebook, the biggest viral success story of the all, didn’t do it alone. It may not have advertised, but it had plenty of national and international editorial support (buzz), both in traditional media and top-tier blogs, every step of the way.

Some call bloggers and reporters “influentials.” These communicators, while certainly influential in their own right, with sometimes extensive spans of control, are driven by commercial incentives. Bloggers and reporters are very important in any message distribution strategy, but we see them as part of the mass media infrastructure. They are important in generating awareness. The trust of an recommendation needed to make a purchase (acceptance), as cited before, comes from a “true” influential (i.e., friend or family member).

Here, we limit the definition of an “true” influential to informal communication at the grassroots level. They don’t use media to broadcast. And, unlike commonly believed, they don’t provide substantial leverage of the order of hundreds or thousands times, but more of the order of two to four times. Duncan Watts, who has done considerable work on the network effect of product acceptance, dismisses the claim that influential people — the “superconnected,” as he calls them — can start viral marketing programs on their own.

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