Social Network Structure: Get Them to Absorb Your Message!

A recent study by MIT examined how social network structure can influence how behaviors and information spread through a population. Understanding the way information moves through social media is imperative to using these resources to effectively market a product, brand, or person.  While the study at MIT focused on how health centered behavior travels through a community, the information obtained can be adapted to the consumer driven marketplace and applied effectively through online marketing campaigns.

MIT believes that all social networks can be described by one of two basic categories: clustered contact networks and casual contact networks (Respectively illustrated by the image provided by MIT below). Clustered contact networks spread complex information much more efficiently and to more people than casual contact networks.

“These figures show experimentally manipulated on-line social networks. The first community (left) has a clustered network structure, while the second one is a more “random” casual contact network. Node colors indicate people who adopted a behavior (blue) and those who did not (white), with lighted links showing the active pathways of communication. The clustered networks spread the behavior to more people than the casual contact networks.”  (, accessed 9/8/10, article by Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office)

Before this study, it was the widely accepted and presumptive wisdom that casual contact networks, with intense activity and the ability to touch more people, would spread habits and ideas more quickly than the clustered model.  It was thought that clustered contact networks were redundant and therefore less efficient. Damon Centola, an assistant professor of system dynamics and economic sociology at the Sloan School of Management decided the opposite. “People are more likely to acquire new health practices while [participating] in networks with dense clusters of connections- that is, when in close contact with people they already know well.” In order for people to actually change their habits, especially something as ingrained as health practices, they need the redundancy and “extra reinforcement” provided by these communities. Just like Pavlov’s dog, you need to hear something a few times before you actually alter your perceptions or behaviors.

How can we apply this to online marketing through social media? The answer is obvious. It’s not all about how many friends or followers you have- or your ability to transmit information to them constantly. People who are more integrated into your life are going to have a greater impact on the decisions you make as well as who you are. We are psychological beings. Therefore, something equal in complexity to health information should be transmitted in a way that is not entirely based upon mathematical equations or numerical values.

While the study practically “begs” for more research, there are things you can do now. Integrate your brand into your audience’s online activities and become an active presence in a related community for your product to take hold. Become a voice on a blog, post to various forums, and make sure your message has meaning and purpose. But then again, it depends on the complexity of what you are trying to communicate. Be wary of the approach you take- convincing a community to vote for a particular politician is a lot harder than advertising a candy bar.


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