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I lead Force Five Partners, a marketing analytics consulting firm (bio). I've been writing here about marketing, technology, e-business, and analytics since 2003 (blog name explained).

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February 03, 2008

A Struggle for the Soul of Viral Marketing

I caught up with my former colleague Shiv Singh last week in new York.  Shiv is now leading Razorfish's social media practice initiative. 

We got to talking about Duncan Watts' research on how trends spread through social networks.  Watts argues that they spread randomly, and that it's the predisposition of the network to "catch" the trend that matters most.  This, of course, flies in the face of conventional thinking on the topic, starting with some of the conclusions that flow out of Stanley ("Six Degrees")  Milgram's work, and more recent books like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Keller and Berry's The Influentials. These latter two argue that some people matter lots more than others in propagating ideas, and that these people can be pre-identified.

Watts' credibility stems from analysis he's done, both of large email archive data sets and through large-scale simulations in virtual world social networks.  And his conclusion, if you agree, would of course be a bummer for the budding industry of folks trying to help marketers influence social media.

A great article on the topic runs in this month's Fast Company.

My take is that as a practical matter, both sides have a point.  I do believe some people, even if just through more numerous interactions, are likelier to spread ideas (though not necessarily yours), and Watts does not completely discount the role of influencers.  And, as I wrote earlier in this post, simply spreading your message through an influencer will be futile if it doesn't "tune in" and extend in a useful way what's already going on in the "conversations" a particular network is having.

(See also Shiv's article in Boxes and Arrows, and this earlier post I wrote on Marketspace Advisor summarizing some of the research on social networks.)

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