What type of social network influences behaviour?

Yesterday we looked at the motivations for why people engage in different social venues; this morning I came across an interesting new study looking at what type of social network best influences behaviour.

Because it’s all very well if a network spreads information like wildfire, but if that information doesn’t prompt users to do something – buy the product, sign up for the event, stop smoking, change the way they talk about the brand – it’s all so much worthless WOM.

Didn’t I hear something about this? via Lab2112@Flickr

The study, from MIT assistant professor of system dynamics and economic sociology Damon Centola, looked at the spread of health-related behaviour in two different types of social networks – one based around ‘long ties’, or many distant connections, and one based on denser clusters of more closely connected people.

Sociologists have traditionally believed that long ties are the key to the rapid and broad spread of word of mouth, an insight reinforced by a Guardian study presented at a WOMMA UK briefing last year. However, Centola found that to change behaviour, you’re much better off focusing on clustered networks.

It makes human common sense. It’s easy for us to quickly pass on a piece of content via a loosely connected contact; but to understand something more complex, or change ingrained behaviour, we’ll need exposure more than once, and from trusted and emotionally impactful sources. There is more work to be done, but as Centola says,

“For about 35 years, wisdom in the social sciences has been that the more long ties there are in a network, the faster a thing will spread. It’s startling to see that this is not always the case.”

The study is intended to help improve the design of effective health networks, but it has obvious implications for marketing. We’ve always emphasised the need for multiple entry points with a word of mouth campaign, in order to foster both deep and broad engagement. This ensures rapid visibility but also concrete behaviour change, leading to sales, subscriptions and changing attitudes.

This kind of insight is invaluable in tailoring engagement, according to both the brand’s priority and the nature of the community. Great stuff.

Molly Flatt