Social-network research shows just a few influential members of a large group can take a new idea and make it seem like everyone’s talking about it. Here’s why that matters for associations.
When you look at your membership, all may not be what it seems.
If the importance of identifying influencers within your association’s community weren’t already clear, it should be now.
As reported last week by MIT Technology Review, researchers at the University of Southern California studying social-network dynamics published a report in June that illustrates how an idea held by a small number of people in a network can be mistaken for being much more widely held than it actually is. They call it the “majority illusion,” and it has some interesting implications for associations in regard to both social marketing and simply understanding their members.
In the paper, titled “The Majority Illusion in Social Networks” [PDF] and authored by Kristina Lerman, Xiaoran Yan, and Xin-Zeng Wu at the USC Information Sciences Institute, a simple 14-node network diagram shows the majority illusion in action:
As the authors explain, “The two networks are identical, except for which three nodes are colored. These are the ‘active’ nodes and the rest are ‘inactive.’ In the network on the left, all ‘inactive’ nodes observe that at least half of their neighbors are ‘active,’ while in the network on the right, no ‘inactive’ node makes this observation.”
The difference, of course, lies in the connectedness of the active nodes. Or, to put the network language in human terms: People with more friends or social connections have an outsize influence on perceptions within the network as a whole. That’s something we might all intuitively understand, but the research demonstrates just how skewed those perceptions can be. The researchers looked for and found this principle present in online networks such as Digg and political blogs, and they suggest it can explain social phenomena ranging from viral cat videos to the spread of smoking or drinking among teens.
So, if the importance of identifying “influencers” within your association’s community weren’t already clear, it should be now. In 2014, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association published research showing that, in the commercial marketplace, 13 percent of sales are driven by word of mouth, whether online or offline, and that number increases for higher-priced products. Brad Fay, chief operating officer at Keller Fay Group and chair of WOMMA’s research committee, says it’s likely also higher in a “prosocial” nonprofit environment.
That aligns with what my colleague Katie Bascuas wrote about word of mouth in April, pointing out industry benchmarking research that ranks word of mouth as the most effective method for membership marketing. (She also linked to a great series of tips on WOM in that post.)
Find Your Influencers
The difficulty for associations lies in identifying their influencers. (They’re not conveniently brightly colored as in a diagram.) Suzanne Fanning, president of WOMMA, says the most sought-after influencers used to be celebrities, before the days of social media. Now just about anyone can be an influencer, but she says the best may be “the ones who find you,” your “star supporters” who volunteer and actively engage.
Fay, coauthor of The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace, says he encourages associations to try to measure their members’ social value, in addition to traditional measures of customer value.
“You may be a relatively low spender yourself, but if you brought in five big spenders to the company, then you have very high social value, and your social value is greater than your customer value,” he says. It may also be a narrow view to see members who hold no other association memberships as your most valuable. They’re loyal, perhaps, but your members who are also members of other organizations may have more social value to leverage, Fay says. If their networks are broader and more diverse than your own audience, they could help in growing yours.
“There’s not a magic bullet to how to calculate [social value]; it’s tricky,” he says, “but just starting to think about that might affect some prioritizing in terms of different people.”
Once identified, influencers must be cultivated with authenticity, not gimmicks, Fanning says. “The most important thing, for me, is to always make sure that it is a genuine relationship … that you’re going after people who truly love what you do,” she says. “You’re not just going after them because they have influence and trying to get them to talk about you.”
Other Lessons in the Majority Illusion
The “majority illusion” principle in social networks is fascinating because, as MIT Technology Review put it, it “can be used to trick the population into believing something that is not true.” You can use that to your advantage if you want to spread an idea, as discussed above, but you can also use it to expose misperceptions—in other words, to show people how they’ve been tricked. “Increasingly, organizations that want to discourage negative behaviors are using a strategy called social norming, where they are trying to shine a light on how few people are doing the negative thing,” Fay says.
Finally, the majority illusion should remind any association professional of the danger of being inside the bubble. The members you know best are the red nodes in your association’s network diagram. “As an industry insider, the people around you are going to have a set of opinions that may be very different from the average person or even average customer,” says Fay.
What might the majority illusion principle mean to your association? How does your association work to leverage influencers within your community? Please share your experience and advice in the comments.