How Do Social Networks Influence Human Behaviour?

Do People Act in Isolation?

In ‘I’ll have what she’s having’; Mark Earls and his co-authors explain how social learning (i.e. imitating other people) acts as the engine for the spread of culture, human behaviour and ultimately innovation. The authors reassert the need for those wanting to influence mass behaviour to move away from the “me” to the “we” perspective.

 

Image of a large crowd of people
Source: FreeImages.com

But, why should we care? Well, the authors demonstrate how copying each other has been the driving force behind the success of our species and the spread of innovation. We are so adept at imitating each other that we are often not even aware that we are doing it. Further, the nature of social learning has far reaching implications for organisations seeking to change mass behaviour or spread new ideas.

“Practically it matters because our social inheritance underlies modern human life in a huge, increasingly interconnected population of people to learn from and an enormous oversupply of choices in our lives.” – Bentley, Earls & O’Brien – I’ll Have What She’s Having.

  • Mark Earls and his co-authors examine the processes by which ideas spread through our social networks. This can often result from person to person imitation without people even consciously being aware of their actions.
  •  This is common where there are large populations confronted with a large number of similar options. People are inundated with choices that lack differentiation. But they are also faced with a multitude of social influences and recommendations that ensures that at an aggregate level there is no clear direction of copying.
  • Sometimes people consciously direct their copying as they want to be associated with like-minded people and share similar experiences. They may adopt an idea because it appears better than what came before or we may seek to conform because it changes our perception of a social norm. There are numerous reasons why we imitate other people, but essentially herd behaviour is at the heart of the dispersion of ideas, behavioural change and innovation through our social networks.
Sheep on the road image
Source: FreeImages.com

 

  • It is a myth though to suggest that herd behaviour leads to people increasingly behaving and looking the same. We all like to have our own identity and will copy different individuals or groups which ensure diversity flourishes. Indeed, for work clothes we may copy colleagues, whilst our music tastes may be driven by friends we socialise with and the model of car we buy may be influenced by people where we live.

“The paradox of social diffusion is that we all conform in one way or another, but this does not mean we all behave in the same way.” Bentley, Earls & O’Brien – I’ll Have What She’s Having.

 

SCALE MATTERS: 

Image of a forest

So if our interaction with other people through our social networks is the key to understanding mass behaviour, why does much of our marketing activity continue to focus on understanding what individuals think and do? The authors point out that predictive cascade models of how forest fires spread do not concern themselves with the characteristics of an individual tree and what it is made of. Instead they treat each tree as flammable material in a grid system. What matters is how close trees are to other trees and how they interact with each other.

Indeed, social scientists have noticed that many behaviours and lifestyle characteristics appear to cluster in social networks. A study by David Shoham, PhD, investigated why obesity and related behaviours cluster. The research among US school children found that it could only partly be explained by friend selection. They discovered a significant and powerful relationship between obesity and a child’s circle of friends.

Indeed, a child who was not over-weight was considerably more likely to become obese if they were closely connected with children who were already obese. They concluded that it was important not to treat children with obesity in isolation. They also found that in this instance social influence tended to operate more in detrimental ways. A TED talk describes the hidden influence of social networks.

Implications:

  • The analysis challenges the validity of generalising results from experiments and quantitative research to the wider population. The authors’ assert that “more” is definitely different. Of course humans are not inanimate objects, but the point is that as social creatures’ human society is more than the sum of the individual parts. At an aggregate level our social networks display complexities that go beyond the traditional marketing and research approach that treats individuals in isolation.
Image showing complexity of social connections
Source: FreeImages.com – Social connections

 

  • As herd theory suggests we are more likely to be influenced by the actions of others in our network. Thus to understand the spread of ideas and innovation we need to pay more attention to the characteristics of our social networks. We are likely to learn more by understanding the scale and structure of networks than studying with the views of individuals. This is about exploring how much social networks cluster, how big and how far they reach, and how they change over time.
  • Brands and marketing content are not important on their own. What matters most is what people (e.g. staff, customers and non-customers) do with them and how they interact with other people in their networks. The scale and structure of social networks will influence how your brand is adopted and evolves as a social entity. Organisations can’t control how people interact with their brands, but they can encourage interaction and adapt to how social networks interpret and change the context of the brand.

Image of brands on a supermarket shelf

  • Organisations can be too focused on the actions of their direct competitors. However, emerging trends and innovations from outside an organisation’s sector can often be a more valuable source of ideas as they are not subject to the same norms that evolve and constrain behaviour in their sector.
  • Thank you for reading my post. I hope it has challenged some ideas about human behaviour and has generated some useful ideas about understanding social dispersion.

Further reading: I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

 

Thank you for reading my post and I hope you found it useful. Please share using the social media icons below if you like this post.

You can view my full Digital Marketing and Optimization Toolbox here.

To browse links to all my posts on one page please click here.

  • About the author:  Neal provides digital marketing optimisation consultancy services and has worked for  brands such as Deezer.comFoxybingo.com, Very.co.ukpartypoker.com and Bgo.com. He uses a variety of techniques, including web analytics, personas, customer journey analysis and customer feedback to improve a website’s conversion rate.
  • Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com  and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website.  If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to neal.cole@conversion-uplift.co.uk. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.

Do Companies Care About The Quality Of Market Research?  

What Do Executives Care About?

I’ve read a number of posts about the quality of market research. Some of these posts have criticised poor practices of research suppliers and others point to the frailties of client side-researchers. Some valid points have been made, but there is a danger that we are missing the bigger picture here.

  1. Market research is a collaborative process and unless all parties work together we will gather data, but we are unlikely to gain much insight. This of course includes the people we call respondents. As Mark Earls points out in his book Herd, co-creativity is deep rooted in human nature. Most new ways of looking at problems are the result of people working together in groups rather than on their own. This is why the nature of the relationship between the client, agency and respondent is so important to the success of research.
  2. Most senior managers in client-side companies are more concerned about the quality of insights and the action that results from research spend. They tend to assume that we are the experts and will use our professional judgement to ensure research is carried out to the required standard.

There are many challenges on both the client-side and the supplier-side to completing a successful research project. However, from working on the client-side  there are some practices that can help the different parties work together more collaboratively.

  • Keep processes manageable and simple. I once came across a colleague who was updating a manual for a continuous customer satisfaction project that was over 100 pages long. The research agency was expected to follow the procedures in the document! Even if someone did read the manual there is no way that they could digest every procedure and ensure they were all implemented.

“Of course, organograms, Gantt charts and 6-sigma processes all make us feel more secure. But this security is based on just the same illusory roots as our own individual volition and sense of self.” Mark Earls, Herd.

  • Include action planning or post-research workshops in the brief and proposal to ensure that it is positioned to all concerned as an integral part of the process. This can help kick start the process of getting buy-in and commitment from client-side management to an essential part of any project. Unless planned from the beginning there is a risk that management will create a separate process and the research team may not even be involved.
  • Focus on using your interactions with each other to exchange ideas and knowledge. This can be particularly useful when conducting a review of published research and current thinking related to the business problem.

There are also a number of ways that client-side researchers can encourage a more collaborative approach and improve the chances of valuable insights being identified from a study.

Client-Side Behaviours:

 

  • Don’t rely solely on head office management’s view of the business problem.  In any large organisation it is difficult for Head Office management to be in touch with what’s happening at the coal face. Company culture and human nature often don’t encourage staff to feedback problems they encounter. Research agencies may be able to help with this process, but it’s valuable for the client-side research to meet with staff at different levels that are directly affected by the problem. This can be a great source for developing hypothesis to test in your research.
  • Try to uncover hidden agendas’ by engaging with different stakeholders. Challenge the need for research. What would happen if no research was undertaken? Explore what stakeholders anticipate will come out from the research and what they perceive to be the main barriers to change.
  • Don’t be too prescriptive with your research brief. You can state your preferences for how the research should be designed, but leave it open for discussion and refinement.
  • Don’t look at the project in isolation. Share other relevant insights with your research agency and discuss whether they can add value to your current project.

There are also behaviours that research agencies can employ to improve the relationship with the client and thus encourage a more collaborative approach. These may seem obvious, but I’m amazed how often agencies don’t follow these practices.

Research Agency Behaviours:

 

  • Research the organisation and client. A lot of client-side teams have been downsized over recent years and so have less time to brief suppliers. Help the client by doing some homework. Use LinkedIn to find out about the background of the client.
  • When you get a brief from a client call them up to discuss the brief. Find out about the background to the project and allow the client to explain their thinking behind the suggested approach. See how open they are to alternative and more collaborative approaches.
  • Don’t just re-produce the brief in your proposal. Take the opportunity to add value to the brief and if appropriate look at the problem from different angles.    Clients are often put off a proposal if it is perceived to follow a standard template and there is little effort to explore the business problem further.
  • Be up front about the level of time and support you can offer before you need to charge additional fees. Many client-side researchers are under pressure to save money and don’t appreciate having to request an increase in budget.
  • Find out about your audience and who the key stakeholders are. Ask the client-side researcher to brief you about any reservations or concerns stakeholders have about the research.
  • Focus on insights rather than data and methodology. It is a myth that turning up for a debrief with a large PowerPoint deck or a set of data tables impresses clients. Management would rather focus on one slide with genuine insights than spend an hour going through a long detailed presentation.

Conclusion:

Market research is not  about quality, the client or the agency. What matters is the customer or prospect and what insights we can derive from the whole process. To maximise insights we should seek to collaborate with all parties involved to avoid over-focusing on our internal procedures and policies.

Thank you reading my post. If you found this useful please share with the social media icons on the page.

You can view my full Digital Marketing and Optimization Toolbox here.

To browse links to all my posts on one page please click here.

 

Further reading:

Herd, Mark Earls.

Thank you for reading my post and I hope you found it useful. Please share using the social media icons below if you like this post.

You can view my full Digital Marketing and Optimization Toolbox here.

To browse links to all my posts on one page please click here.

  • About the author:  Neal provides digital marketing optimisation consultancy services and has worked for  brands such as Deezer.comFoxybingo.com, Very.co.ukpartypoker.com and Bgo.com. He uses a variety of techniques, including web analytics, personas, customer journey analysis and customer feedback to improve a website’s conversion rate.
  • Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com  and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website.  If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to neal.cole@conversion-uplift.co.uk. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.