The Strength of Weak Ties and Search

First published August 2, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Mark Granovetter wrote a ground-breaking study in 1973 called the “The Strength of Weak Ties.” It later became one of the foundations for Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” I ran across Granovetter’s work and a later follow up study by Jonathan Frenzen and Kent Nakamoto (Frenzen, Nakamoto: “Structure, Cooperation and the Flow of Market Information,” The Journal of Consumer Research, December 1993) that further explored the fascinating world of word-of-mouth and how it spreads through networks. When we move this into an online paradigm, it has some thought-provoking implications.

No Network is an Island

First, let’s cover Granovetter’s work. In an oversimplified version, it states that social networks are not uniformly dense in their makeup. There are very densely linked nodes. These are families, circles of best friends, immediate co-workers and other very close relationships. These clusters, or islands, are then loosely linked by more fragile ties that span the clusters. They include formal acquaintances, lapsed or dormant friendships, more distant relationships and other “arm’s length” connections. These are Granovetter’s “weak ties.” For a viral spreading of information, we can assume that word will spread quickly within the tightly linked clusters, the “strong ties” — but for it to spread widely, it has to be passed through the “weak ties.” Otherwise, it will never spread outside a cluster. Thus the importance of these “weak ties” in the structure of the social network.

But there is another factor, and that is the cooperativeness of those “weak ties.” Are they motivated to pass on the information? In the words of Frenzen and Nakamoto: “Instead of an array of islands interconnected by a network of fixed bridges, the islands are interconnected by a web of “drawbridges” that are metaphorically raised and lowered by transmitters depending on the moral hazards imposed by the information transmitted by word of mouth.”

The Principles of “Passing it On”

Frenzen and Nakamoto’s study introduced two variables: value of information and moral hazard. In this case, they used the framework of an exclusive sale. The value of information varied with the size of the price discount. And the moral hazard was the scarcity of inventory available at this discounted price. So in the low value/low moral hazard version, it was a smaller discount (20%) and there was plenty of inventory available. There was no danger that close friends and family would “lose out” by sharing this information with a wider circle. In the high value/high moral hazard version, the discount was high (50-70%) and the number of items available at this price was very limited. A scarcity mentality was imposed.

Frenzen and Nakamoto also varied the structure of the network by assigning different “tie strengths” to the linkages within the group. The results were striking. In the low moral hazard scenario, where there was maximal cooperation to pass along information, everyone in a 100 member social network, composed of five loosely linked clusters, received the information in a maximum of seven time periods (the actual period used was not stated), even with a varying link strength of the network. In fact, in the strongest structure, everyone knew by the third time period. But in the high moral hazard situation, transfer of information was much slower and less effective. In the strongest structure, it took eight time periods for 100% spreading of the information. And in the weakest structure, even after 15 time periods, still only 66% of the group had received the information.

WOM Moved Online

So, what does this have to do with search? Simply this. The weak ties are now moving online. If we have great news or a great product story to share, we can now share this information on line. We can blog about it, post a comment or leave a review. But we’re most likely to do this when there’s low moral hazard. We pass information where there’s no “scarcity mentality.” So we’ll happily post about a great travel destination, a restaurant or a piece of software because by doing so, we’re not running the risk of losing out ourselves. We’re much less likely to blog about that exceptional deal on men’s suits at 70% off, when there’s only six suits left. That information is reserved for our closest friends. It only gets passed along through our strong ties.

There’s another factor at play here that was beyond the scope of Frenzen and Nakamoto’s study. We are motivated to pass on information online when it’s remarkable. Product or brand experiences have to earn the right to be passed on. As online mavens, we’re motivated by being “first to know” and by passing on value. Therefore, we carefully consider the trustworthiness of the information and its authenticity before we decide to share it. After all, we’re staking our reputation on it. Although these online posts become Granovetter’s “weak ties” online (because we usually don’t have strong personal relations with all the readers of our various online “footprints”) they only happen when the nature of the information bears passing along.

If we’re depending on the spread of word of mouth for our marketing, we have to start with some basic understanding of how the dynamics of the network works. All too often, we assume that everyone is like our best friend, eager to spread the word about our product or service. In the wired world, this would include leaving footprints online, through blog posts, comments and reviews. There, future customers can connect with them through search. But a successful viral campaign is largely dependent on those weak ties being motivated to pass along the information. It needs to be remarkable in some compelling way (i.e. Godin’s Purple Cow), it has to eliminate a scarcity mentality, it has to feel authentic and, to appeal to the mavens, it has to have the feel of news.

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