Social Network Theory and Optimal Social Media Marketing Campaigns

- April 21, 2009

With the rise of social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and countless others, everyone is working hard on social media marketing campaigns to maximize their followers, fans and members in these networks and spread their message as widely as possible. This is really nothing new. Marketing has always been about spreading the word and networking should always have been part of anyone’s business plan.

To maximize the opportunities afforded by this new way to network it is a good idea to have an understanding of how social networks work. Luckily sociologists, anthropologists and other social scientists including those in the field of marketing have been busy studying social networks for years, so we actually know quite a bit about how people organize themselves and how social behavior is spread. There is a great article on this in Wikipedia that describes it in detail.

One thing that I’ve always found fascinating about the way social networks work is the differing values of social network relationships. In dense social networks, people have lots of close connections between each other and regularly interact. Because of this, participants in dense social network connections tend to strongly influence each other. As a result, they are also usually very homogenous in their attitudes and behaviors, so much so that it can be difficult to get the group to change. However, when you do, they all change, which can be very valuable if this change involves the adoption of your product or service. For example, when I was in high school, we all had to have Lee jeans with the little leather brand label intact and alpaca sweaters. I have no idea why – everybody just did. Members with many connections in a group are said to have a lot of social capital in that they have great social influence within the group. However, at some point, somebody had to start the trend and that’s where understanding social networks is important. In particular, understanding which members of networks spread new ideas and behaviors is critical for a good social marketing campaign.

It might seem that the person with the most connections and therefore, the most social capital in the group would be the most influential in spreading change. The emphasis in social media marketing which is on getting lots of friends and followers would seem to follow that theory. However, it turns out that sheer numbers of connections does not necessarily signal the most valuable members of the network for spreading a message. In fact, it is the people with the most direct connections between groups that have the most influence on spreading change. These people have “bridging capital” in that they serve as bridges between groups.

What this means for using social networks to spread your message is that the best people to have in your network are those that have many direct connections to a number of dense social networks, not just lots of connections within a dense social network. These are the people who will be the innovators and will have the most value for spreading the message.

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