At first glance, it may seem obvious that marketers should target social media users who boast large numbers of friends and followers. Surely, those with the largest networks are the ones wielding the most online influence, right?
Perhaps not. A new study by researchers at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business found that social media users with small numbers of friends actually have more influence over their online network than those who might appear, at first, to be more popular.
It seems we still have plenty to learn about online influence and how best to generate marketing buzz using today’s social media platforms.
“People who email each other more frequently are closer, more likely to influence each other, and have influence over others,” said Gary Russell, a Tippie College of Business marketing professor. “We found that a person who has a large network but doesn’t buy anything isn’t important from a marketing perspective. A person at the fringe of a network but who buys a lot is more influential than someone at the center but who doesn’t buy a lot.”
To arrive at this conclusion, Russell and Tippie doctoral student Sang Uk Jung analyzed transactions between players in Kilride, an online multi-player game that is, apparently, a national pastime in parts of Asia.
Kilride replicates everyday activities such as making friends, creating social groups, and purchasing items with real and virtual money. Since all of those activities are recorded, Jung said in a press release that the game provides a rich resource database to study transactions between people.
Russell and Jung looked at a month’s worth of buying behavior to see which players held the most sway among their gaming network. They found that the frequency of communication with other members of the network was more important than the size of a player’s network.
Based on that data, Russell and Jung were able to accurately predict future buying behavior most of the time. They concluded that people online tend to self-segregate, just as they do offline.
The message for marketers (besides the obvious advice to capitalize on big fish/small pond scenarios), is that you don’t have to throw away everything you know just because you’re marketing with new media. Trust what you’ve observed about human behavior.
As the research suggests, businesses might be better off picking users with small online networks to sell their products or services, or to create marketing buzz for their business. According to the results, someone who has a smaller number of online acquaintances but communicates frequently with them is a better target than someone who has more online friends but doesn’t communicate as often.
Or, in other words . . . Sometimes, the more things change the more they stay the same.