The End of Influence as We Know It

The idea that there are highly influential people who are trendsetters for the rest of us is very seductive.  So seductive, in fact, that it has held sway in marketing circles, in one form or another, for over five decades.  The media has picked up the concept by publishing lists of “top influentials” – e.g. The Atlantic magazine.  But this marketing orthodoxy is coming under greater scrutiny and being challenged by network scientists such as Duncan Watts. 

influentialFast Company, in its February 2008 issue, highlighted the new research and the ensuing debate among marketers in an article Is the Tipping Point Toast?by Clive Thompson.  The theory of “influentials” had its origins in the 1950’s with the work of Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld (authors of Personal Influence).  Its latest  proponents include Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) and Ed Keller and Jon Berry (authors of .Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy).    The influentials theory goes like this.  Target a sophisticated minority of  highly connected consumers (the “influentials”) and motivate them to talk up / recommend your product or service.  They will convince others to use the product or service and get a viral buzz going.

Duncan WattsDuncan Watts, a noted network theorist and author of Six Degrees, has challenged these long held beliefs with some new studies he has conducted while on sabbatical from Columbia University at Yahoo Research   His conclusion?  He finds that viral buzz is as likely to be started by poorly connected ordinary Joe’s and Jane’s, as by in-the-know hipsters.  What matters, he argues, is the readiness of the environment to accept the messages delivered, not the messenger.  In a receptive environment, a weakly connected individual can spread a trend as easily as someone with a large Rolodex.  Without that receptivity, even those highly connected hubs of society may be ineffective in a viral campaign.

Stanley MilgramHis findings were based on research that reproduced some of the original work of Stanley Milgram– arguably the father of the notion of six degrees of separation – except on a much larger scale.  Milgram had 160 individuals in Nebraska attempt to get a letter to a stockbroker in Boston by sending it to a colleague who they thought could get it one step closer to its final destination.  Only a small percentage of the letters made it to the stockbroker and these made the final step through the same three friends of the target.  Milgram concluded that the separation between strangers is generally 6 degrees or less.  Marketers concluded that the fact that the same three individuals appeared to act as gatekeepers proved that influentials were a critical part of communication among strangers. 

Watts’ study increased the size of the study by two orders of magnitude (61,000 participants) and used e-mail instead of postal mail.  He confirmed the six degrees, but showed that only 5% of the e-mails passed through hyper-connected individuals.  The bulk went through weakly connected participants.  He concluded that the apparent gatekeepers in Milgram’s study were a statistical artifact because of the extremely small sample size.  Watts has studied all sorts of human networks, from disease patterns to how rock bands become popular. 

So what’s the big deal?  Two things:

  • Advertisers and marketers are spending billions of dollars annually targeting so called influentials who they hope will spark viral campaigns
  • All of this money, time and effort may be wasted if what really matters is the receptivity of the general public to a new product, service or idea

One has only to think about the current presidential campaign in the U.S. to see how important Watts’ ideas could be.  In the world of book publishing, it may mean that we should find ways to gauge the receptivity of a market to a new author or title rather than hoping that some well placed book reviews will make the difference between failure and success.  Watts is the first to admit that some will find his conclusions counter-intuitive, but the science of networks and his carefully organized experiments appear to support them.  Relativity and quantum mechanics are counter-intuitive, but modern science and all the benefits it has bestowed would be impossible without these “unnatural” theories. 

Our intuition can be powerful, but it can be seduced and canalized by appealing ideas that don’t stand p under closer examination. 

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