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Network or node? Influencer or idea? Apple or Hush Puppies?

Posted: June 1, 2011 at 11:44 am No Comments »

Earlier this week, MIT hosted a workshop dedicated to the study of information flows and decision-making in social networks. Among those presenting were researchers from Norway’s Telenor, whose work suggested a predictive link between network structure and consumer purchase patterns. According to MIT’s Technology Review, the researchers

found that social connections predicted whether users were likely to own Apple products more than what would be expected by chance. For the iPhone, for example, users had twice as many connections—having communicated by voice, text message, or email—to one another than to call owners of other devices. What’s more, if a person had one friend who owned an iPad, he was 14 times more likely to own one himself than if he had no friends who owned an iPad.

The researchers then looked at the comparatively unsuccessful launch of a Doro handset. Me neither, but according to the website, Doro is a Swedish company developing telecom products for older people. This might be a good business plan: marketers’ relentless focus on youth and novelty ignores major demographic shifts that have taken place in western societies since advertising came of age in the 60s; while today’s marketers target the same demographics as Don Draper, economics suggests they might be better off targeting the same people.

The Telenor research, however, highlights a potential problem. According to the network analysis, Doro users are connected to few other Doro users, and there is no “central cluster”, structural tropes that will undermine any attempt to gain momentum through social media channels.

But how important is that central cluster? The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s famous theory that a few hyperconnected – centralised – “influentials” are key to runaway success, was, almost as famously, attacked a couple of years ago by network mathematician Duncan Watts.  Watts refused to recognise the importance of, say, a small number of Brooklyn proto-hipsters in the mid-90s Hush Puppies revival. “If it’s something about them,” he argued [with my italics]

why aren’t they driving all the other trends?  What turns out to be the deciding factor is not the ‘influentials’ but the people who are easily influenced. You might have someone who influences five times as many people as the average, but the total numbers relative to a population are still very small. Almost all of the action is away from the center.

Perhaps it’s not network structure inhibiting Doro so much as easily-influenced fanboys making things straightforward for Apple.

Of course, there might be more obvious reasons to account for different adoption patterns for Apple and Doro products. In another talk given at the MIT workshop, Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis spoke about the importance of the qualities of whatever is spreading through a network in determining how, exactly, it spreads.

Provided there’s some kind of shrubby density, a forest fire doesn’t rely on anyone sparking a particularly influential match.  If there is some basic framework for transmission of information, “news value” is the most crucial element in the propagation of a particular story.

For Doro in particular, provided the Swedish oldsters’ network dynamics are not wholly prohibitive, the key drivers might well be the products themselves.

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About the author: paulmiller

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