Researchers have now scientifically proven the effect of social networks -- providing hard data about how “unstated” interests are shared among participants. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, obesity can literally be spread among mutual friends.
This is solid off-line research, based on three decades of data collected from 12,000+ socially-connected people. According to the study, the spread is most likely due to the “general perception of the social norms regarding the acceptability of obesity” rather than the behavior itself. In fact, friends do not even have to live in geographic proximity to influence weight gain.
Consider The Underlying Influences:
Which, of course, made me consider the underlying influences among our online communities. With all of the intense socializing people are now doing online, should we be more careful about selecting our buddies -- even if it's not face-to face? Could our intense online social networking lead to “catching” interests, attributes or behaviors? Leaving aside our political correctness, do we care if these common interests are considered desirable or undesirable?
Well if our behaviors are any indicator, we aren't consciously thinking about our participation and are joining up because everyone else is too! Social destinations continue to boom (comScore, June 2007 vs. 2006), including over 70% growth for MySpace and some 270% for Facebook. The daily visits to each grew in a similar fashion. Even with other places to socialize, these stats alone illustrate that online communications are happening, period.
With the possibility of behaviors transferring implicitly between friends, perhaps the attraction comes from deeper connections which are made too. For example, Joe's travels to France could attract others who share interests in European travel or in 18th century French antiques. And, by the way, one of his friends truly relishes Spanish cuisine. Some of these interests may become known by Joe, and he eventually tries paella.
Target Based On Connections:
Why does this matter? Well, people are definitely connecting in ways perhaps unexpected by advertisers. It is your challenge to gain a larger and more complete picture of the segments and communities that actually exist out there. I'm advocating for all advertisers to experiment and actively learn from the social networks, rather than merely dip your toes into the water.
Realize that many of your current consumers are part of the social crowds, whether you are doing anything or not. Your product (or brand) promoters and detractors will be among them, and their collective explicit interests may signal implicit ones that actually matter to you. By signing up for social networks, you should be able to browse or search some of this topical feedback online.
Think more like a sociologist, about consumption and sharing of your product. Then consider some action based on direct as well as adjacent targets. There are plenty of ways to advertise to the networkers, from participating as a "persona" on social sites to making more traditional buys.
I'm pleased there's analytic proof -- in the off-line world no less -- that clearly shows social networks aren't only about explicit interests. Let's think more broadly as marketers reaching the right people in the right places. We should stop being overly cautious media buyers here, spending on keywords and controlled content silos alone. The networks have too many interests to ignore.