03/05/2014 06:18 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

How the Digital Wave Is Changing Social Analysis to Actually Drive Influence

Although it's probably shocking for the now generation, the word 'social' was not always tied to tweeting your favorite foods and posting play-by-play pictures of your night out on the town. Examining social connections and their impacts on real-world scenarios began well before the days of mobile and even before the Internet.

What comes to mind when I mention Kevin Bacon? For his sake, I'm hoping some would say his stellar performance in A Few Good Men or impressive dance moves from Footloose but for many, it would be 'six degrees of separation'. What's become a fun pub game actually came to fruition after a series of experiments were conducted to see how quickly a package or message could get from a randomly chosen individual to a distant recipient by physically sharing it with direct contacts of each individual along the way. As the term conveys, the theory is that everyone is six or fewer steps away from any other person in the world.

Ever wonder who would be most helpful in your next job search? Well, it depends on the type of job you're looking for. One of the earliest studies of social connectivity giving rise to modern theory examined how the level of a connection (strong = family members, close friends, long-term colleagues; weak = acquaintances) affected the probability of securing a job with the assistance of that connection.

The study found that weaker connections delivered a higher success rate for those seeking white-collar roles while stronger connections proved more valuable for blue-collar positions. A point worth noting if you're on the hunt for a new job.

From understanding how connections are formed to evaluating how they how they impact our daily lives, the science community has had a long-standing enthrallment with social analysis. The findings have always been informative -- and often very interesting -- but in an offline world, that's really what they remained -- simply learnings.

It wasn't until the digital wave that businesses, and specifically marketers, set their sights on the unique opportunities associated with social analysis. And for good reason. Moving to the 'always connected' era enabled the movement from learnings to application -- and from insights to influence.

Amusingly it is almost a revival of much simpler times, where communication was driven by gossip networks and word of mouth, and relied upon messengers to bridge between otherwise disconnected social communities to get the word out. What came between was the era of broadcast media, much more suitable for disseminating accurate information, but arguably very dangerous for disseminating opinion. State-controlled media, anyone?

With millions of online consumers and now mobile users interacting frequently and sharing opinion over vast physical distances, and with it the real threat of broad dissemination of an individual's bad experiences, there's a heightened interest in understanding the social makeup of a customer base -- and an even higher interest in translating that understanding into tactical efforts to accelerate the spread of intentional messages and offers.

So how do you determine which behaviors among which customers actually require influence? And what's the fastest way to drive that influence?

In my previous post, I posed the question of contagion versus homophily. In short, homophily is the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with those whom they share common characteristics (age, class, values, education, musical preferences, hobbies etc.). Think of the "birds of a feather flock together" expression.

At first glance, this may seem like the Holy Grail for marketers -- identify those with similar attributes, determine social connectedness and launch a viral campaign among this targeted group. Although it's logical, the value of this approach is debatable. Due to the fact that our beliefs, attitudes and circumstances guide our behaviors, the presence of homophily typically comes with an exhibition of similar behaviors -- behaviors that would likely occur regardless of being 'nudged' by social connections. This begs the question -- what's the return on sending out offers (which for a business have an associated cost) to a base of customers who are likely to adopt without being presented a carrot?

Where homophily is driven by commonalities, contagion is driven by speed. Leveraging the same thinking behind the 'six degrees of separation', seeding social contagion relies on the identification of the connecting points that join one group to another, and another, and another -- versus the identification of act-a-like social groups.

Think of your mobile contacts as an example. Who does your circle of family and friends 'connect' you to? If your contacts are all local and around your same age, your social reach is probably pretty narrow. But if you have a daughter in college -- whose connections are connected to other connections across the country -- your social reach could be massive. You probably don't know the friend of a friend of your daughter's sorority sister's brother-in-law's son -- but your degree of separation to a broad mass of individuals could deem you as a valuable 'promoter.'

The perfect storm of digital devices, usage data and social analysis is generating a lot of excitement among marketers. The mobile channel specifically offers a reach and speed of influence that has never been achievable, and is just beginning to be tapped.

My challenge to marketers is to think beyond the obvious. For example, using social media commentary to measure the success of that Super Bowl ad, and to start experimenting. Try seeding engagement with customers that can go viral, using intelligence about the size, span and social density of groups of individuals most interested in your brand, and remember that those who drive propagating the message may not be those that 'like' you the most.

Oh, and please let me know which movies link Jennifer Lawrence to Kevin Bacon with no more than six connections.