Life is Contagious: Underpinnings of Social Influence - Brad Fay

By Word-of-Mouth Matters Archives
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There's a revolution happening in marketing today, the underpinnings of Social Influence -- and, this time, it doesn't have very much to do with the Internet.

The really big revolution is happening at the intersections of social psychology, social network science, and neuroscience, all of which are suggesting new models for understanding consumer decision making.

Two new books provide a roadmap: Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler was published last year; and The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks was published this month.

Both books tell us that people are ruled more by emotion than by rational decision making, and that all of us are far more influenced by other people than we realize. While acknowledging the power of technology to connect people to each other, the emphasis of both books is the connections and influence that happen face-to-face.

I've been talking a lot the last few months, this week at the ARF and The Research Club, about Connected because its message is so important for marketers. Christakis of Harvard and Fowler of UC-San Diego find that human beings are effectively part of a larger, interconnected human "super-organism." Our emotions are transmitted rapidly from person to person, and so are behaviors and preferences of all kinds. Everything about us is contagious.

They write about their own analysis of a 32-year longitudinal medical study, the Framingham (MA) Heart Study. Christakis and Fowler discovered that the original Framingham researchers had collected a large amount of social network data on the 12,000 study participants solely for the purpose of being able to use friends and family to locate study participants who had changed addresses. But the data also permitted the researchers to trace health behaviors and outcomes through social networks. They discovered that when your friend becomes obese, your chance of becoming obese triples. On the positive side, they found an even stronger social effect related to stopping smoking.

In The Social Animal, David Brooks brings the skills of a professional writer to the science of what makes us human. Though his day job is supposedly dispassionate analysis of matters of public policy as a New York Times columnist, he finds people are inherently ruled by their passions. Rather than decry this as an obstacle to good policy making, he says "Of all the blessings that come with being alive, it is the most awesome." He suggests that the key to success and happiness is emotional intelligence more so than IQ.

Although not written for marketers, both books point the way toward a new model for marketing: A "two-step" process where products and marketing communications are designed for sharing; where messages are designed to promote storytelling; and in which marketing channels are designed to reach people when they are in a "social" context.

At the ARF this week I presented on the topic "How Social Are Social Media, Really?" It found that a wide variety of media—including many traditional online and offline channels—are capable of reaching highly connected people who like to talk about and recommend brands.

Most marketers know that we are in an era of massive change in the way brands communicate with consumers. The Internet is providing an array of powerful new tools that are essential components to any modern marketing plan. But the biggest opportunity we have today is to embrace the way consumers truly make decisions: They rely on powerful social cues—most of which are communicated face-to-face. This is what makes us all human.

Brad Fay is the Chief Operating Officer of the Keller Fay Group, a company he co-founded in 2006 with CEO Ed Keller, who is past President of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Brad can be reached at bfay@kellerfay.com.

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