A lot of marketing money is moving into social networking sites. But for the most effective campaigns, one needs to find out how and why people are influenced by others in their networks. The type of message and nature of product may also matter, which is why Van den Bulte, Wharton colleague Raghuram Iyengar, and Jeonghye Choi of Yonsei School of Business have come together to develop a framework to tie the various mechanisms of social influence and product adoption:
To generate product buzz, for example, a campaign might reach far into a network with an attention-getting message. Seeding people with many indirect ties within a social network would be more effective than seeding opinion leaders. The opposite would be true if the marketing aim was to reassure consumers about product benefits. This campaign would favor trusted experts, people with many direct ties in the network as opposed to people with great indirect coverage.
The researchers suggest that social influence travels through a network via five mechanisms: by spreading awareness, through social learning or social-normative influence (adherence to norms of proper behavior), by creating competitive or status concerns, and/or by installed-base effects.
To test their framework, they tracked physicians’ adoption of a drug in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco for seventeen months from its launch date. This new drug was used to treat a chronic, life-threatening infection and there was uncertainty about its risks and long-term efficacy. Given these high stakes, the researchers predicted, and found evidence, that social learning (about the drug’s risks and benefits) and social-normative influence were the mechanisms by which physicians influenced their peers to adopt the drug.
It’s never just about the opinion leaders – if it were so easy then why don’t marketers achieve success all the time? Marketing is a science, and it requires tweaking variables (the network, the opinion leaders, the message, the product) to pinpoint how best to reach an audience and have them respond.