Social Contagion — Why Products and Ideas Become Popular

What real­ly makes prod­ucts and ser­vices go viral and spread con­ta­gious­ly? How can dig­i­tal mar­keters make their offers catch on and become pop­u­lar amongst their audi­ences?

Valbona Gjini By Valbona Gjini from Rocket Fuel Inc.. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Last year we pub­lished a blog post about The Psy­chol­o­gy of Online Shar­ing where we looked into the pop­u­lar­i­ty and growth of social media net­works analysing the psy­cho­log­i­cal trig­gers that moti­vate us humans to share con­tent online and fur­ther what con­tent is most like­ly to be passed on between peer groups.

This time around we are look­ing at indi­vid­ual deci­sion mak­ing and the role social dynam­ics play between peo­ple gen­er­at­ing col­lec­tive out­comes such as social con­ta­gion and trends.

So what real­ly makes prod­ucts and ser­vices go viral and spread con­ta­gious­ly? How can dig­i­tal mar­keters make their offers catch on and become pop­u­lar amongst their audi­ences?

Let’s set the scene first: accord­ing to Tech­no­rati Media’s 2013 Dig­i­tal Influ­ence Report the dig­i­tal land­scape has slight­ly changed com­pared to last year. The survey’s inter­vie­wees con­sist­ed of 6000 influ­encers, 1200 con­sumers and 150 top brands – a pret­ty com­pre­hen­sive sam­ple.

60% of top brands sug­gest a 40% increase in social spend for the year 2013. Cur­rent­ly the major­i­ty of brands’ dig­i­tal spend goes direct­ly to search, dis­play adver­tise­ment and video. Whilst only 10% of the total dig­i­tal spend are devot­ed to social media and influ­encer mar­ket­ing. To fur­ther break these 10% down – Face­book takes the biggest slice of the cake cur­rent­ly account­ing for 57% of social spend close­ly fol­lowed by YouTube and Twit­ter each account­ing for 13%. The graph below gives a clear out­line of the top brands social spend­ing frag­men­ta­tion.




Influencers & Blogs have greater impact than social media

You prob­a­bly think so far so good, but there’s been a pret­ty steep shift in con­sumer trust, pop­u­lar­i­ty and influ­ence mean­ing that even though influ­encers and blogs are only allo­cat­ed the min­i­mum dig­i­tal spend they now have a greater impact on con­sumer deci­sion mak­ing than social media!

Regard­ing the consumer’s pur­chase deci­sion mak­ing process, blogs now trail close­ly behind brand and retail sites and also belong to the top 5 most trust­ed online sources. Accord­ing to con­sumers blogs have a greater impact on form­ing opin­ions than Twit­ter. This means the land­scape has changed and that blogs have a high­er impact than social media on your con­sumers’ pur­chas­ing deci­sions.


The harsh real­i­ty is that brands’ spend­ing is not ful­ly aligned with where and how con­sumers are see­ing val­ue and are being influ­enced.  Mean­ing dig­i­tal mar­keters are cur­rent­ly miss­ing out on a big piece of the cake.

I believe that this is inter­linked with the poten­tial hur­dle faced by numer­ous con­tent cre­ators who lack the right met­rics to see where and how their con­sumers are actu­al­ly being per­suad­ed.


Why most digital marketers are currently missing out

From this it becomes appar­ent that the art and sci­ence of pick­ing and choos­ing influ­encers has become key. How­ev­er, in the sur­vey, the brands used dif­fer­ent met­rics for select­ing influ­encers such as comScore/Nielsen, fol­lowed by the num­ber of Twit­ter fol­low­ers, Face­book likes and the influencer’s like­li­hood to draw likes. But it’s impor­tant to note that niche-sized influ­encers are not well pre­sent­ed with­in comScore/Nielsen.

This reasserts the impor­tance of select­ing the right met­rics to find market/niche influ­encers as they great­ly influ­ence your consumer’s pur­chase deci­sion mak­ing.

So what are the right met­rics?

You may know who’s a sec­tor influ­encer, pos­si­bly even how to reach them, but do you know their net­work and how influ­en­tial they are? Blog­gers don’t just exist on their blogs but also on their social media out­lets where they’ll share their pas­sion and pro­mote their posts. What dig­i­tal mar­keters there­fore need is a way to iden­ti­fy which blog­gers are influ­en­tial with­in a ver­ti­cal and who is inter­act­ing a lot with the indus­try.

Linkdex has there­fore been work­ing hard analysing con­ver­sa­tions and rela­tion­ships on Twit­ter, for every ver­ti­cal in the world. Each of these ver­ti­cals con­tain net­works of influ­encers and social shar­ers. If you look at your own indus­try you will have clos­er rela­tion­ships with some and more dis­tant rela­tion­ships with oth­ers. Mean­ing there will be large groups of peo­ple where you don’t have any trac­tion or influ­ence — yet.

Intro­duc­ing Linkdex Net­works

Our lat­est inno­va­tion Linkdex Net­works enables you to visu­alise and analyse these groups of rel­e­vant influ­encers. The objec­tive is to enable dig­i­tal mar­keters to grad­u­al­ly iden­ti­fy the right per­son­al­i­ties and build rela­tion­ships with them, spread­ing along those net­works for max­i­mum expo­sure.

If some­one with­in your net­work has lots of rela­tion­ships point­ing to them you know that they are per­ceived as trust­wor­thy sources. The aim is to find influ­encers who are pas­sion­ate on a niche top­ic, have strong rela­tion­ships with the group and are recep­tive to new ideas with plen­ty of reach.


When most peo­ple look for influ­encers they actu­al­ly find the noise mak­ers and the most recog­nis­able faces. What these dia­grams allow you to do is iden­ti­fy the real action­able oppor­tu­ni­ties avail­able to you. So you might stop spam­ming poor old @randfish with mes­sages and start talk­ing to the small niche influ­encers who are clos­est to you and more like­ly to be recep­tive and help­ful.

Tru­ly under­stand­ing how peo­ple relate to each oth­er in a net­work dia­gram is a pow­er­ful way of pin­point­ing the peo­ple you need to talk to. With Linkdex net­works you can also see:

  • your con­tacts
  • your own brand
  • your friends
  • your contact’s friends
  • as well as the influ­encers inside that net­work

And you can see all this in the same net­work visu­al­i­sa­tion. The pro­files also include the domains they write for, their social pro­files and con­tact details, allow­ing you to spend more time mak­ing your ideas and prod­ucts con­ta­gious.


What is influence — and how to choose influencers

Influ­ence at its real­ly high lev­el is the abil­i­ty to change someone’s thought or action — there­fore influ­encers have to pro­vide rel­e­vant and trust­ed con­tent to their com­mu­ni­ties to cre­ate some kind of con­ta­gious effect. Below are 8 fac­tors to con­sid­er when choos­ing your influ­encers

  • Cred­i­bil­i­ty: they have to be trust­wor­thy, active and telling their world their opin­ion on an on-going basis.
  • Band­width: the influ­encer has to have a high band­width — what’s their exper­tise? How many times do they tweet each day? How often do they pub­lish posts? What’s their reach?
  • Domain Cred­i­bil­i­ty: there is no such thing as an uni­ver­sal influ­encer. Peo­ple are usu­al­ly influ­en­tial with­in cer­tain domains or spe­cif­ic social net­works.
  • Rel­e­vance: Deter­mine how pas­sion­ate they are about the top­ic – indi­vid­u­als often become influ­en­tial first­ly because of their pas­sion and exper­tise on a top­ic.


  • Trust: Regard­less of the oth­er fac­tors, if the tar­get audi­ence does­n’t trust the influ­encer your brand’s mes­sage won’t be ampli­fied.
  • Chan­nel Align­ment: the align­ment of where the tar­get and the influ­encer is, obvi­ous­ly they have to be in the same place.
  • Blog Reach: Most influ­encers blog and are usu­al­ly per­ceived as being gen­uine since they are sin­cere in their product/service reviews there­fore they become a trust­ed source of infor­ma­tion. As a result trust dri­ves action, and thus con­sumers look to blog­gers to gain prod­uct insights.
  • Big vs Small Com­mu­ni­ties: Com­mu­ni­ties are a great place to share infor­ma­tion and dis­cuss ideas with oth­ers. Look for influ­encers who have earned the trust of small­er or niche com­mu­ni­ties and pro­vide them with val­ue and start build­ing a rela­tion­ship with them.


We are moving from Domains To People

The dig­i­tal mar­keter’s focus has been re-shaped with empha­sis on peo­ple and their net­works rather than domains. At one of our high­ly antic­i­pat­ed Linkdex Think Tanks late last year I had the chance to talk with Kelvin New­man  from Site­vis­i­bil­i­ty and he said some­thing worth remem­ber­ing:

Too long we have kind of con­cen­trat­ed on web­sites and web pages rather than the peo­ple who are behind that. I think that what dig­i­tal mar­keters want to do is as indi­vid­u­als to con­nect to oth­er indi­vid­u­als. The abil­i­ty to track those peo­ple down in a scal­able and effi­cient way is real­ly quite inter­est­ing. That means if you know those peo­ple and you know what kind of con­tent they have shared pre­vi­ous­ly, what kind of con­tent they like, and what they are inter­est­ed in. If you can under­stand that about a group of indi­vid­u­als before­hand, then when you are putting con­tent togeth­er you can think about that in that process. So if you under­stand what they have liked and what they as a group have liked pre­vi­ous­ly you can increase the like­li­hood of pro­duc­ing some­thing suc­cess­ful.

Once you under­stand where online com­mu­ni­ties are, why they are there, what makes them tick, how they are con­nect­ed with oth­ers and who they are con­nect­ed with — I think you won’t argue with me if I say only then are you in a seri­ous­ly pow­er­ful posi­tion to tar­get them accord­ing­ly.

The next step we ought to take now is to get an under­stand­ing of social dynam­ics of groups whose inter­ac­tions with each oth­er gen­er­ate col­lec­tive out­comes such as social con­ta­gion and trends — after all that’s what we want to achieve, right?


Behavioural & Emotional Contagion

Gus­tave Le Bon first used the term in 1895 to explain aspects of people’s behav­iour in crowds. Humans usu­al­ly act very much alike when they are in crowds (e.g online com­mu­ni­ties) – imi­tat­ing another’s behav­iour.  To achieve behav­iour­al con­ta­gion with­in online com­mu­ni­ties the fol­low­ing vari­ables have to be met

  • The infor­ma­tion seek­er and the influ­encer have to share a sim­i­lar mood or sit­u­a­tion
  • The influencer’s behav­iour encour­ages the seek­er to review his/her con­di­tion and to change it
  • The influencer’s behav­iour would assist the seek­er to resolve a con­flict by reduc­ing restraints if copied – that’s the foun­da­tion of con­ta­gious dif­fu­sive­ness

Anoth­er aspect to fur­ther influ­ence con­ta­gion is the lev­el to which the seek­er iden­ti­fies himself/herself with the oth­ers of the group — if iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is strong the behav­iours of the oth­ers will have a greater impact.

Emo­tion­al con­ta­gion on the oth­er hand is the incli­na­tion to think or do things in a cer­tain way asso­ci­at­ed with oth­ers. Emo­tion­al con­ta­gion is wide­ly spread via social net­work­ing sites and blogs – in the form of per­sua­sion con­texts. The abil­i­ty to trans­fer moods appears to be innate in humans. Accord­ing to Hat­field this takes place through the fol­low­ing steps

  • When the seek­er is inter­act­ing with the influ­encer, he per­ceives the emo­tion­al expres­sion of the influ­encer
  • The seek­er then auto­mat­i­cal­ly mim­ics those emo­tion­al expres­sions

Through the process of “affer­ent feed­back” these new expres­sions are trans­lat­ed into feel­ing the emo­tions the influ­encer feels, thus lead­ing to emo­tion­al con­ver­gence. The high­er the influencer’s ener­gy lev­el the high­er the con­ta­gious effect.


Factors that influence group contagion

So far we have briefly dis­cussed the psy­cho­log­i­cal aspects of behav­iour­al and emo­tion­al con­ta­gion. The extent and rate of emo­tion­al con­ver­gence with­in online com­mu­ni­ties is deter­mined by its:

  • mem­ber­ship sta­bil­i­ty
  • task inter­de­pen­dence
  • social inter­de­pen­dence

As well as the group’s per­son­al prop­er­ties such as

  • open­ness to receive
  • trans­mit feel­ings
  • demo­graph­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics

Harry Potter World Global Campaign Launch

For the launch of the its much antic­i­pat­ed Har­ry Pot­ter World resort the top 10 com­mu­ni­ty influ­encers were iden­ti­fied to prece­dent over tra­di­tion­al media. They were invit­ed to an exclu­sive web­cast where the launch was first announced and equipped with exclu­sive art­work fol­lowed by a Q&A. The icing of the cake though was the invite to the actu­al film loca­tion – a guar­an­tee for their audi­ences to engage with them.


The result?

  • 1,000 pieces of con­tent with­in 24 hours
  • Gen­er­at­ing 6.5 mil­lion search­es on Google and Yahoo
  • 18,000 pos­i­tive posts with­in social media net­works – account­ing for 0.3% of the total posts that day
  • One week after the cam­paign launch a mere 175 mil­lion peo­ple were talk­ing about it

Now that’s what I call a tru­ly con­ta­gious effect!


Influ­encers are usu­al­ly pas­sion­ate thought lead­ers as well as con­sumers. Their voice is val­ued by their fol­low­ers and their pas­sion and authen­tic­i­ty are key to their online reach. Every brand has or could have influ­encers — the chal­lenge until now was how to tru­ly iden­ti­fy them but Linkdex Net­works puts you in a pow­er­ful posi­tion to get in touch with those you real­ly want to speak to! To cre­ate a gen­uine­ly con­ta­gious effect with­in your tar­get audi­ence the only chal­lenge you face now is to fit your cho­sen influ­encers with your brand’s good­will and core ethos empow­er­ing them to engage oth­ers pas­sion­ate­ly, cred­i­bly and authen­ti­cal­ly.

Valbona Gjini

Written by Valbona Gjini

EMEA Marketing Manager, Rocket Fuel Inc.

Valbona was formerly Digital Communications Manager at Linkdex, and now works for Rocket Fuel. She grew up in a beautiful but very rainy region in the north of Italy, so the London weather makes her feel right at home.

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