Some time in the Mad Men era of corporate communications marketers in the U.S. realized the strong, independent-minded individualistic Americans they were trying to reach mostly didn't exist.
Instead most people tended to decide the right thing for them to do was exactly what others in their peer groups were already doing.
Psychological researchers found peer groups didn't make their own decisions, either.
Even fairly large groups tend to favor one set of products or opinions because the decision of each member of the group was influenced heavily by earlier decisions someone they respect or would like to emulate.
The problem is that it's very difficult to identify which "influencers" are really making decisions for large groups of others and which aren't. (That's the problem for marketers. Existentialists and metaphysicians usually describe the problem they have with influence marketing as a horrified "GAAAaaaahhhh" at the ovinity of it all.)
Marketers and advertisers have spent millions trying to identify the influencers in their particular market segments, often simply by looking at how big someone's list of Followers is on Twitter or the readership of a magazine.
That's a rudimentary approach likely to misidentify a lot of independent decisions as the influence of people who are completely uninvolved, according to according to Sinan Aral and Dylan Walker of NYU's Stern School of Business.
The two studied the spread of a commercial movie application through 1.3 million users of Facebook in an effort to map the influence of influencers and identify characteristics of non-influencer-influenced decisions as well.
Some influencers are not only genuine, they influence other influencers, giving them the potential to become "super-spreaders" whose opinions ripple out much farther than they could reach on their own, the two wrote in the paper they published in Science magazine this week.
Other decisions – even those shared by millions – may be the result of "homophilic" coincidence in which two people with similar personality characteristics and backgrounds make the same or similar decisions based on things they have in common, not the example of a common guru, Aral and Walker wrote
Just separating the ordinary from the hemophilic decisions is tricky, the two wrote, though in their paper they were able to identify ways to separate coincidental "homophilic" decisions from those made by following the example of others.
They also identified rules of thumb describing how influencer decision-chains actually work – that is, who wields the influence, when and how, if not why.
- By tracing the progress of decision among 1.3 million Facebook users, Aral and Walker found that, on average:
- Men influence more people than women;
- Women influence a higher percentage of men than women;
- Older people influence others more but are influenced less than younger people;
- Married people are less susceptible to the influence of others than any other group;
- Influence and susceptibility are incompatible – those who are susceptible to the influence of others tend not to have much influence themselves, and vice versa.
- Some highly influential people are connected to other highly influential people, giving them the potential to be "super-spreaders" by influencing those with large followings of susceptible non-deciders.
"We combine estimates of influence and susceptibility with estimates of people’s natural tendency to adopt a product to devise precise and accurate targeting strategies for spreading the product or behavior in the population," Aral wrote.
Mapping the function and use of influence is important in helping focus advertising and marketing to sell products, Aral wrote. However, influencing-the-influencers is a power that can also be used for good.
"We are now working on applying the same science to promote HIV testing in Africa and other positive behaviors including exercise and political awareness," Aral told NYU's PR department for its announcement of the study.
I haven't found anyone important to confirm it for me yet, but I'm toying with the idea of believing we'll see nothing from that effort but will hear a lot of chatter from advertisers and marketers trying to use Aral and Walker's findings to sell more mouse pads, breath mints and soap.
As soon as I can find someone whose example I can follow, I'll let you know which way we should all go on it.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.