First published August 2, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Look at any graphic representation of a social network, and you will see a somewhat globular cluster of nodes — and, at the center, you’ll find the subject or owner of the network. The density of the nodes will be greater near the center, but there will be small clusters of interconnected nodes that will appear throughout the map. This pattern, the visual interpretation of human connection, looks much the same now as it did for tribal humans 100,000 years ago. But there is one important difference. Then, you probably only had one network you belonged to, which was defined by geography. Today, you can belong to many networks, and they’re often defined by ideas.
Connecting the nodes in a typical social network map are small lines representing the glue, or ties, of the network. At the simplest level, a network can consist of just two nodes and one line, called a dyad. The line represents the relationship between the two nodes. But what is the raw material of that line? What causes it to exist in the first place? Sometimes, we can find clues in language. If that line represents a relationship, what causes two people to relate to each other? The word relation comes from the Latin noun relatio, which has two relevant meanings: carrying back and to narrate. Both meanings depend on communication. Communication, in turn, has its etymological roots in the latin comoenus, which means shared. From this, we see the structure of a network depends on both the sharing of a common concept (a value, goal or ideal) and communication. These are the raw materials of those little links in the diagram.
Those who analyze social network structure often look for reciprocity in those links: are they two-way links? Reciprocity is hardwired into humans. Evolutionary biologists and behavioral economists have found that the most successful survival strategy is something called “tit for tat.” Even if you’re among the 46% of Americans who don’t believe in evolution, you still can’t ignore reciprocity. Every single religion has as one of its tenets its own variation of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It all comes down to the same thing: it’s not beneficial to keep investing in a one-way relationship. If we keep inviting you for dinner and you never invite us, sooner or later the invitations will stop coming (offspring and certain relatives being the exception — and then there’s another whole evolutionary dynamic at play).
Here we have the three foundations for a stable social network: communication, sharing and reciprocity. Not exactly rocket science, just plain common sense. Yet it’s amazing how often we lose sight of these three things when we start applying them to our marketing efforts. Let’s take just one example. Look at any company’s social presence, whether it‘s their Facebook page, their Twitter feed or their Linked In profile, and see if there’s evidence of reciprocity. Is all the communication going out, or are people responding? Active user feedback is one of the primary signals we look for in a healthy social network.
Another signal is clear evidence of shared values. As I’ve said before, frequency of engagement (especially if it’s of the nonreciprocal variety) does not lead to brand loyalty, but shared values do. Are the values of an organization clearly evident in their social outposts? Are there active conversations based on those shared values?
Finally, we have communication. Marketers have to take every opportunity to facilitate communication. Often, commercial social networks are based on the sharing of required information. Companies (especially in the B2B space) have to become much better at sharing the wealth of information they have in their own particular industry. They have to start thinking like publishers. And they have to enable forums to allow for active feedback.
Get these three things right, and strong social networks will grow organically.