May 11

From influentials to small connected groups

Much marketing activity in the last ten years has been focused on finding and seeding messages with “influentials” – people who have a high number of connections, and are thought capable of setting off cascades of a message. Based on a lot of research since The Tipping Point was published over ten years ago, we’re now seeing that this idea was largely a myth. We’re learning that most people aren’t influenced by people with these attributes. We’re learning that many of our decisions are made subconsciously (even when we think we made a conscious decision) and that the people who do have influence over our behavior are usually the people who are emotionally closest to us. We’re learning that because of over-confidence in their knowledge, many experts are worse at making predictions than random chance.

I feel that we’re at the beginning of a cycle in business where we move away from this idea of “influentials”, and instead focus marketing activity on small connected groups of close friends. I think this is what marketers are starting to think about, and will be the prominent theme for this decade. Let me briefly explain three driving factors behind this shift.

  • The first driving factor is that our online world is catching up with our offline world. Just as we are surrounded by people throughout our daily life, the web is being rebuilt around people. There is overwhelming evidence of this change all around us. Many businesses are reorienting themselves around people. As a result, people are increasingly using the web to get the information they need from each other, rather than from businesses directly. People always sourced information from each other offline, but up until now, online information retrieval tending to be from a business to a person.
  • The second driving factor is an acknowledgment in our business models of the fact that people live in networks. For many years we have often considered people as isolated independent actors. Most of our consumer behavior models are structured this way. People moving down a decision funnel, making objective choices along the way. Based on lots of recent research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, we now know that this isn’t true. Peoples’ networks influence almost every aspect of their lives. What they do. Where they go. What brands they prefer. What products they buy.
  • The third driving factor is that for the first time in humanity, we can accurately map and measure human to human interaction. We now have multiple networks that digitally connect millions of people, and support interaction between these people. We can measure who is connected to who, who talks to who, and who shares ideas with who. This allows us to understand how messages spread.

When we look at these networks, very clear patterns emerge. People have multiple independent groups of friends, they tend to have less than five groups, and these groups usually have less than 10 members.

When we look at individual relationships between people, we also see clear patterns. When it comes to trusting others, people tend to have a trusted “inner circle” of less than five people. People turn to their closest friends for advice, even when they know that their friend has no knowledge of the topic.

We see that people have a limit on the number of people they can keep up with. This is a physiological limit of the brain and isn’t going to change any time soon. We can only keep 150 other people in our heads at any one time. We may have many more “friends” on Facebook than 150, but we have no idea what is going on in their lives.

The most interesting thing about the patterns found in social networks, is that although people move in small circles and trust a handful of people, they are all linked together. I may only have four groups of friends, with five people in each group – 20 people – but all of those people also have different groups of friends. People I don’t know. And their friends have different groups of friends. Through our friends of friends of friends, we’re connected to tens of thousands of people. All of us. All closely connected to tens of thousands of people.

We have ~4 independent groups of friends (left). Focusing in on our ten closest friends, the people we trust the most (right)…

Removing the detail (left) and spreading people out (right) shows you one person and their ten closest friends…

This friend of theirs (left) has four independent groups of friends. This other friend also has four independent groups of friends (right).

These two friends (left) also have four groups. In fact, all ten closest friends have four groups (right). This is hundreds of trusted connections. This is the opportunity. Many people, at an exponential scale, connected by their closest, trusted friends.

The most critical point to understand about this shift, is that the people connecting groups are not special. They are just you and I. Each one of you is likely a bridge between at least four groups.  Knowing that groups are independent, each one of you is the only person on earth connecting about 30-40 other people together. If we want ideas to spread, if we want people to evangelize our brand and for their messages to spread, we need to focus on everyday people, and understand how their groups of friends are connected.

This is where marketers will start to focus their attention in the next year or two. This is our opportunity. Many connected groups of friends.

- Find out more in this slidedeck.
- I’m writing a book about this. It’s called ‘Grouped’. Check it out here.
- Here is an incomplete set of references. I’ll post a new set over the next few weeks. In the meantime, start by reading this book and this book.