How Do Social Networks Influence Consumer Behaviour?
How Do Social Networks Influence Consumer Behaviour?
Do People Act in Isolation?
People do not act in isolation, they connect with many people though highly complex social networks, this influences our behaviour. 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.
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. Furthermore, 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 being aware of their actions.
This is common where there are large populations with a large number of options. People are inundated with choices that lack differentiation. But they are also faced with a multitude of social influences and recommendations. This ensures that at an aggregate level there is no clear direction of copying.
Sometimes people consciously direct their copying as they want to be with like-minded people and share similar experiences. They may adopt an idea because it appears better than what came before. We may seek to conform because it changes our perception of a social norm. There are numerous reasons why we imitate other people. Essentially herd behaviour is at the heart of the dispersion of ideas, behavioural change and innovation through our social networks.
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. 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.
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 from 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 close with children who were already. They concluded that it was important not to treat children with obesity in isolation. They also found that in this instance social influence operates more in detrimental ways. A TED talk describes the hidden influence of social networks.
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 as social creatures’ human society is more than the sum of the individual parts. At an aggregate level our social networks display complexities. They go beyond the traditional marketing and research approach that treats individuals in isolation.
As herd theory suggests we are more likely to be influenced by the actions of others in our network. 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 also how they interact with other people in their networks. The scale and structure of social networks will influence how your brand adopts and evolves as a social entity. Organisations can’t control how people interact with their brands, but they can encourage interaction. They can adapt to how social networks interpret and change the context of the brand.
Organisations can focus too much 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. They are not subject to the same norms that evolve and constrain behaviour in their sector.
Neal is Chief Optimisation Consultant at Conversion Uplift Ltd and a CXL Instructor. He has over 10 years experience of A/B testing and improving conversion rates for major international brands across multiple sectors, including gaming and financial services.