On April 30, 2008, three students at Ridgewater College, a small technical school in Minnesota, posted the following on Facebook:
For our final project we need to do a networking experiment. We decided to see how far 3 average college students could reach out to within one week on facebook. We are begging you to join our group and then ask all your friends to join as well. This is only a one week experiment so you can just delete this after a week or so if you wish to.
Exactly one week later, the group had nearly 700,000 members.
I was asked to join from a friend that I had last seen some 8 or 9 years ago, and I did so and invited others. In the end I was asked probably 5 times to join this group. Many businesses would have to pay tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to get a like response from a similar audience. This trio did it with a few hours of work. I could find no news release or other types of promotion. It simply was passed from individual to individual as evidenced with the invitations to me and I would assume others. In the end, this experiment became a powerful example of weak ties in action.
Years ago, Everett Rogers discussed the concept of weak ties when he mentioned,
The informational strength of dyadic communication relationships is inversely related to the degree of homophily (and the strength of attraction) between the source and the receiver [ . . . ] This homophily and close attraction facilitate effective communication, but they act as a barrier preventing new ideas from entering the network.
An innovation is diffused to a larger number of individuals and traverses a greater social distance when passed through weak ties rather than strong.*
Rogers could not have seen the strength and speed of how the networks of our day have influenced the speed of adoption. Of course, many organizations have used viral marketing to some success, but the approach is lacking if it just focuses on this one aspect of networks. The end understanding shouldn’t be surrounding “viral” marketing. It is in understanding the culture within which a product or (more especially) a service exists. As I, and others, have talked before—marketing is not about simply selling “delight” or “solutions”, it is about sitting a product or service within a society as a tool for exchange, expression, and ultimately, identity. Understanding that role is the key to successful branding. We marketers need to understand better that product or service adoption has much to do with an individual’s place in society. Some have got it for some time; over 35 years ago Frank Bass wrote:
Apart from innovators, adopters are influenced in the timing of adoption by the pressures of the social system.**
As we truly understand how demographic groups communicate and how weak ties are connected, then success in marketing will not as much guesswork. Strategy and creativity will be able to truly mesh as we use these insights to access these networks—whether they be 20-something Facebook members or 60-something classic car restorers.
*Rogers, Everett M.; “New Product Adoption and Diffusion,” The Journal of Consumer Research, Mar 1976, Vol. 2, No. 4, p 290 – 301.
**Bass, Frank M.; “A New Product Growth for Model Consumer Durables,” Management Science, Jan 1969, Vol. 15, No. 5, p 215 – 227