Nov 21, 2016 / by Jim Dougherty

Influence and influencers are frequent topics of discussion for marketers and communication professionals. We perceive social media platforms and other means of digital amplification as tools with incredible potential, yet we know very little about how effectively and by what mechanism influence occurs. As a practical matter do we have more influence over the people that we are the closest to (Dunbar’s number) or are we able to exert any meaningful influence over our weak tie connections (Granovetter)?

A recent Freakonomics podcast on the topic of trust discussed social capital (embedded below), defined by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam as the “collective value of all ‘social networks’ (who people know) and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other (‘norms of reciprocity’).”

Within the scope of social capital are two categories:

  • Bonding social capital – ties between relatively homogeneous groups
  • Bridging social capital – ties between relatively heterogeneous groups

These two terms are frequently used in sociological discussions and may be useful concepts to understand the most efficient ways to use certain social media platforms.

What I want to do in this post is take a look at the difference between bonding and bridging social capital, which social media communities might be construed as either, and how communications and marketing professionals can use this information to more effectively influence prospects with social media.

Bonding Social Capital

If you’re an open-minded person, come here and close yourself in. – SNL’s “The Bubble” sketch

Bonding social capital is the value of the social networks that consist primarily of friends and family. Contacts within this characterization of social capital are generally like each other in at least one fundamental aspect (homogeneity of ethnicity, age, gender, social class, etc.).

Stephen Wolfram’s analysis of Facebook networks demonstrates that Facebook is a social network built primarily of bonding social capital. Wolfram showed that people have 3 to 4 social groups on Facebook, which with few exceptions tend to be about the same age.

Sociologists call this tendency for people to be friends with people who are similar to themselves “homophily.” There is a great episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast called “The Power of Categories” that explores our affinity towards people that are similar to us (embedded below).

A robust Facebook network demonstrates connectivity to people like us. These connections are deeper than bridging social capital, perhaps limited by constraints hypothesized by Dunbar’s number. Because of this, communications and marketing messages on Facebook may be congruent with segmentation models. We know from Wharton professor Jonah Berger’s research that social media sharing is a form of self-presentation: people share things because of how it makes them look to people in their networks. So, effective communications within the bonding social capital network are affirmative of the common values between all members of a person’s social circles.

People with larger “bonding” networks have been shown to be healthier than those without, suggesting that there may be a deeper meaning to why we build these types of social networks. And self-described introverts seem to find a high amount of affirmation and satisfaction by participating in homogeneous networks.

Bridging Social Capital

Bridging social capital is a bit different. We define these ties as those that link people across cleavages that typically separate us from bonding social capital. These connections are characterized by a lack of depth, making them perhaps similar to weak ties suggested by Granovetter.

Because of the utility of LinkedIn (link to coworkers, with the intent to professionally network / seek employment), this social network is probably closer to bridging social capital than bonding. This is an important distinction for marketing communication professionals because content that makes us look good on Facebook may not make us look good on LinkedIn. The shared values and propriety between these networks are most likely different.

N-CO-1.1.5P Identifying-Opportunities-Issues-Keys-to-Monitoring-Traditional-Social-Media

Bigger than that is the idea promoted in the Freakonomics podcast by psychologist David Halpern and political scientist Robert Putnam, that bridging networks develop a higher degree of trust and civic engagement.

In other words, bonding social capital by itself is relatively insular. Bridging social capital is broad.

Interacting with a more diverse group of people tends to help us trust more generally, and makes us more prone to participate in activities that contribute to making our communities better.

Presumably, Burger’s insight into broadcast sharing and self-presentation would still hold for these networks. So how do you engage a network characterized by its diversity? What types of content and messaging would appeal to a diverse audience? It is not an easily answered question, although appealing to civic responsibility may be a common denominator within these networks.


Describing Facebook or LinkedIn as emblematic of bonding or bridging social capital is simplistic. There is research to suggest that there is a degree of bridging social capital in Facebook networks when we have identified “holes” (outlying members that appear to not fall into concentrated social circles) within a network map. A person could easily populate their LinkedIn with their friends. Social networks like Twitter and Google Plus might be either type of network, depending on how you use them.

As relatively new as social networking platforms are, these social capital models demonstrate that the way we interact with each other and with other people is not new. We have new tools to communicate with, but we may still have the same general tendencies. These social tendencies are important to understand if you want to communicate with people where they are.

Monitoring social media conversations and analyzing trends can connect you with the needs, preferences and habits of your audience. Request a demo now of Cision’s award-winning software to see how it will help you uncover what’s being said, identify and engage with the influencers saying it, and achieve measurable results through these relationships.

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About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.