Tracking The Elusive Influential

by Jeff Larche |

Sorry, Malcolm. You’re still on the hot seat. I was initially planning to call this An Apology To Malcolm Gladwell: Your Book Isn’t Crap After All. I was inspired by news of amazing work in the field of social media analytics — news that suggested that real Influentials were finally captured “in the wild.”

That was before I dug deeper. The facts are that some cool data mining techniques are helping one company leverage their own “Influentials” (Gladwell calls them Mavens), but the work isn’t scalable to other industries. The only thing we can say for sure about these Influentials is they’re helping someone half a world away pick up more cell phone minutes. Here’s the research that got me so excited.

It’s from The Economist, and is called Mining Social Networks: Untangling the social web:

[Cell phone] companies can spot [Influentials], and work out all sorts of other things about their customers, by crunching vast quantities of calling data with sophisticated “network analysis” software.

Instead of looking at the call records of a single customer at a time, it looks at customers within the context of their social network. The ability to retain customers is particularly important in hyper-competitive markets, such as India.

Bharti Airtel, India’s biggest mobile operator, which handles over 3 billion calls a day, has greatly reduced customer defections by deploying the software, says Amrita Gangotra, the firm’s director for information technology.

When I first read this, I was ready to eat my words. I’d made prior claims that Gladwell’s The Tipping Point was wrong. Mind you, Gladwell is a wonderful writer. I particularly like his Blink, and Outliers. But Tipping Point hinges on research that implies that ideas — and brand recommendations — are spread like viruses; Find the hubs of those viral “outbreaks” and Poof! You vastly improve your sales success.

Here’s part of the post on my Digital Solid blog casting doubt on those assertions:

“Gladwell’s The Tipping Point talked about Mavens as hubs of influence. These folks are strong connections in a social ecosystem. As mavens on this subject or that, their opinion means much in persuading others. Gladwell based much of his book on the research by Duncan J. Watts, described in his book Six Degrees of Separation: The Science of a Connected Age.

“This research, which was itself predicated on Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment, suggested that strong ties do most of the work in spreading a message.

“The only catch: When the actual pathways were traced in Watts’ experiment, he found that only 5% of the work was actually done by these supposed hubs. He finally concluded that messages can be spread nearly as efficiently without hubs (i.e., Gladwell’s Mavens), and in fact, these myriad weak connections are the key to a social network’s real power to influence.”

Even the study’s originator, Duncan Watts, came to retract his strong ties conclusions.

The Ecstasy — And The Agony — of Hunting Influentials

Now comes a company, Bharti Airtel, that is actually profiting dearly by finding their own hubs of influence and catering to them differently than the rest of their customers!

My pulse raced. For a while.

The problem is that the the telecom isn’t profiting by any information about a brand (theirs or anyone else’s) passed through their phone connections. Instead, as best as I can tell, they’re measuring the number of calls and the time spent on the phone with each. My guess is that they’ve stumbled upon a different force at work — a force very different from the strong ties phenomenon.

I suspect they’ve benefited from the power of “social proximity.” A study described in the excellent book Consequential Strangers, conducted by Douglas McAdam and dubbed his Freedom Summer research, found that people are more likely to volunteer for a difficult and risky project if they have many friends with an emotional stake. For those following through with a project, versus a control group who did not, “Backing out meant disappointing, or risking the disapproval of, [on average twice as many more] people they knew.”

I haven’t been able to learn the details of how Bharti Airtel is using their network insights to make money, but my suspicion is they are selectively employing a “Friends and Family” type of loyalty program … Perhaps these folks automatically trigger discounts in much of their network, as long as they don’t defect to another mobile provider.

A Promising Trail Leads Nowhere

I love this industry. We’re in the middle of a social experiment that’s playing out right before our eyes, and it can be a thrilling ride. I’m just sorry that the early thrill of this recent stretch of trail turned into a dead end.

Now more than ever I’m prone to agree with the authors of Consequential Strangers, who wrote, “Marketing texts are filled with anecdotes about the importance of reaching a ‘network hub’ … As the case for Freedom Summer exemplifies, messages spread and movements grow out of everyday relationships.”

Photo credit: kurtz433 via Creative Commons
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About the Author

Jeff Larche

Jeff Larche has a deep background in database marketing and direct response. His is a consultant specializing in CRM and interactive marketing with Accenture. His own blog, which is also the name of his original consulting business, is Digital Solid. When he's not working at his day job, he's provided digital strategy support for a worthy not-for-profit, Rock the Green: mixing education about our environment with a day of great live music on Milwaukee's beautiful lakefront!