When we use a social network — and I mean any social network — from the well-known sites like Facebook and Twitter to the more marginal sites like Identi.ca or Plurk — we are doing something social in a very public way. We may feel like we are just sitting at home, beavering away on the computer, but we are in fact taking steps on the world stage with human as well as robot eyes watching our every move.
And because of the way that social networks operate, whenever we “add a friend” or a “connection”, that person receives a notification of some kind. But so too do our other connections. In our real lives, this would be the equivalent of introducing a new person to your friends at a party. The big difference is that the connections that we have on social networks are visible, and others can observe the relationships that we have. This is what is known as “the social graph”.
But social networks allow us to go deeper. We don’t just connect to friends on social networks — we play games, share our interests and passions, join groups and show our support for causes, brands and businesses. And as we do this with every click, like and link, we reveal our preferences and behaviours. This data, in turn, is captured, stored, segmented and made available to the social network platform. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+ then use this information to map your interests, creating what is known as the “interest graph”.
For brands and businesses wanting to connect and engage their customers, this is very attractive. As consumers, we may not like to do the washing but we do like products that make an onerous task easier — and a casual status update on can be seen as a positive (or negative) product review.
But the thing to remember is that most of us have fairly small online networks of connection. We generally stick to what is known as the Dunbar Number— the 150 friends that we know and trust. So while we may want to “reach” a larger audience, with social media we must do this by connecting and navigating the vast array of small clusters of trusted individuals.
The benefit in doing so, however, lies in the level of trust that is built into these small clusters. As the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer indicates, 62% of Australians trust a “person like yourself” above an industry analyst (57%), a regular employee (51%) or the company CEO (41%). And trust is vital in allowing a message to spread from one cluster to another.
For the business owner, the challenge then becomes one of ensuring that there is a story worth sharing with just one connected individual.
As Robert H Bloom, former CEO of Publicis, explains, “The easiest and most profitable growth will be achieved by adding additional customers very much like your current and most valuable customer.” And in this day and age, that means selling to the friends of your friends. But to start, you need to connect.