Marketers are hungry to mine new social-network data: not just what you say, but whom you’re saying it with. There’s a homophily concept, you see, that birds of a feather buy together. A classic 2004 study by AT&T Labs Research found that people who chat frequently on the telephone are three to five times more likely to respond to the same marketing pitch. Twitter today has 75.2 million monthly users, and while 93% of them have sent fewer than 100 tweets, that leaves a population of about 5 million frequently updating their likes about brands, products and services, with visible connections.
Danah Boyd, in her SXSW keynote address, pointed out a nuance in networks, though, that should warn marketers to be careful before they toss offers based on sheer data. The concept goes like this: Imagine you know X people in the world and interact with all of them in some manner. Your behavioral network is everyone you touch somehow, which could be observed from the outside. Yet within this you may have a smaller group that you say you know — by pinning their names inside Microsoft Outlook, or Facebook, or your cell phone contacts — which is your articulated network. And within this, there is an even smaller group who are your personal network — family, true friends, or perhaps enemies, the intimates who touch your inner mind. These are not mutually exclusive categories; an intimate friend may not be someone you log in to an address book; but you treat them as three discrete concepts in your head.
Google’s Buzzworthy failure
Buzz was an attempt by Google to build a new social network; to scale it rapidly, Google decided to tie the on ramp to its Gmail. Gmail users who opened their web mail in February were greeted with a message touting how Buzz would share updates with their friends easily! Trouble was, the default setting in Google Buzz was public disclosure of the names of your Gmail contacts you communicate with most frequently. Want to catch a whiff of a competitor’s business development strategy? Hook in with Buzz and see who they’re emailing. Users could disable the feature, but it was complicated, an opt-out, and made some worry they might cancel their entire Gmail account by doing so.
Danah summed up Google’s mistake:
“Google collapsed behavioral and articulated social networks and presented them in a way that indicated that they might be one’s personal network. And for many users, this wasn’t quite right. You may talk to your ex-husband frequently via email, but that doesn’t mean that you want to follow him on Buzz.”
Metcalfe wants more
Technology companies are doing such things not to be evil, but to build networks with more utility that can be monetized at greater value in the future. It’s no mistake Facebook removed privacy settings by default in December, opening your updates to everyone (with the option to go back); the greater the nodes in the network, the higher the value to potential advertisers. This week Twitter announced a new @anywhere initiative that basically allows you to click on links in news articles to follow or retweet authors, publishers or brands — another way to expand its network nodes. Such pushes may indicate social networks are cresting in adoption; Twitter, for instance, should be concerned that 57% of its users have only 1-10 followers and 24% have no followers at all. If you run the network, you want it to grow and to be as open as possible — because that unlocks all doors to value.
But Google, Facebook and other companies that tap networks too hard without weighing the nuances of privacy are met with a fierce backlash. For marketers about to wade into the social streams, it’s worth considering more than the sentiment and volume of tweets about your brand, the connections between users that indicate their responsiveness, and the tactics you can deploy to get them leaning toward your message. You might also consider if your observant intrusion is going to freak anyone out.