A Scientific View of Why Ideas Go Viral

Last Updated May 12, 2011 3:02 PM EDT

Many consultants try to predict trends, but I doubt anyone envisioned that a bestselling formula of the 2000s would involve economists and social scientists pointing out the hidden forces that drive business, and decision-making.

The best of the genre-Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational--share a strong foundation in scientific research and acknowledge that ordinary people grasp the contradictions of their own behavior, but don't always understand or know how to explain their decisions.

A recently published book, Everything is Obvious, Once You Know the Answer, by Duncan J. Watts (Crown, March 2011) does a good job of demonstrating the downside of common sense, but also showing how people are often ahead of the experts and gurus. Watts, professor of sociology at Columbia University and principal research scientist at Yahoo, does this to particular effect in his debunking of Malcolm Gladwell's notions of influence, tipping points, and social networks.

Watts argues that people's "common sense"--which he defines as knowledge of the social rules--equips them to make short-term decisions, like where to sit in a crowded subway. But when it comes to complex social phenomena, like marketing campaigns, common sense isn't enough.

Watts pokes gaping holes in the so-called "law of the few" and "influencer" strategy popularized in Gladwell's bestseller,The Tipping Point. According to Gladwell, "special people" with unusual social and cultural connections and clout play a decisive role in mobilizing social networks and consumers. A very small number of people, the "influencers," serve as hubs or nodes in consumer and social networks making them "linked to everyone else" in ways that no one else is. Their endorsement, chatter, enthusiasm, or approval is necessary for breakout success, and instrumental to launching new services and products.

But Watts points out the law of the few is not the law at all. It's a perception based on cool examples and great business writing. Before you roll out your next marketing campaign, consider these points from Watt:

Yes, ideas spread quickly through social networks, but usually it's not because of "influencers."
Gladwell drew on the work of psychologists such as Stanley Milgram who did experiments testing the social chains between people--what is known today as "six degrees of separation." Milgram found that "sociometric stars" were a key to shortening the chain of connection to your desired target. But Watts staged his own experiment that updated Milgram's work, and in doing so, uncovered different findings.

Using email, Watts had 20,000 searchers seeking 18 targets in 13 different countries. Ultimately, the chains passed through 60,000 people in 166 countries. Watts found that half of all chains met "the six degrees of separation" test. That is, the seeker found the target in chain of seven people or less. But Watts also discovered that highly connected people--the hubs or influencers--played no significant role. People selected the next person in the chain based on qualities such as living in geographic proximity, sharing occupations, and other factors more so than being heavily connected, or having high status.

Marketers and executives have no clue what an influencer is.

Watts points out we all talk so much about influencers, we've accepted the term without knowing its definition. Are influencers ordinary people with extraordinary reach? Are they celebrities or "opinion leaders" as they were named in earlier stages of pr theory? Even if we were to exclude bloggers, media, and Oprah from our definition--how then do we measure how an influencer impacts the opinions of others? Watts says some studies measure an influencer as someone whom at least three people say they would turn to for advice. But that scale -- reaching people who are three times better connected than others -- does not move the millions of people marketers, political campaigns, and brands need to reach. Stripped of the media spin, an influencer's clout is limited without the amplifying power of the Internet.

Going viral has more to do with the receptivity of the audience than the people doing the sharing, tagging and endorsing.
Watts researched how the right influencers can ignite "social contagion"--"the idea that information, and potentially influence, can spread along network ties like an infectious disease." Watts and marketer Peter Dodds staged a series of computer simulations basedd on respected scientific models of network behavior and viral contagion. After careful, exhaustive simulations, they did find that highly influential people were more effective than the average person in triggering social epidemics. But their importance was far less than the "overall structure of the network": what matters far more to an idea, candidate, or product going viral is that the networks of people are easily influenced and networking with others who are easily influenced.

Watts went further with another study of viral effects among Twitter users in a study tracking 74 million "retweet" chains among 1.6 million Twitter users. He wanted to verify in social media whether certain high follower Twitter "influencers" triggered greater cascades of retweets than others. He found that Twitter mega-influencers did generate greater cascades, but not regularly. Their "hits" were sporadic and inconsistent, while newer and less influential Twitter users had breakout retweets because of the subject, topic, or timing.

Marketers, consumers: do you think the role of "influencers" has been overstated?

Related:
image courtesy of flickr user, HumongoNationphotogallery
  • Herb Schaffner

    Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.

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