From consumer insights to network insights

Why it’s time to stop thinking about the consumer and start thinking about the network.

Two things happened this week that made me realise just how redundant it is today to think about a single, individual consumer.

First, I had a briefing on a new project. Some lovely (and smart) people had done some thinking on the consumer-the classic pen portrait. They’d thought hard about it and they’d done their research but I found myself thinking that it didn’t tell me what I really wanted to know. While they were telling me about the individuals, I was thinking about the network. Asking myself:

  • What content are these people sharing?
  • Why do they share it?
  • How do they share it-active endorsement versus more passive sharing (ie via social plug-ins)?
  • Where do they share it?

The brilliant Griffin Farley has already touched on some of these questions in his excellent thinking on propagation planning. As he so pithily puts it, “plan(ning) not for the people you reach, but for the people that they reach”. If you haven’t checked out his excellent presentation, I strongly urge you to do so. It’s one of the most useful pieces of thinking I’ve come across on influence and social spread.

So what do I have to bring to the propagation party? Well, while influencers are undoubtedly important, I think peer to peer networks may be even more so. Or perhaps the point is that everyone is an influencer today-albeit to varying degrees. There is no-one we talk to today (hermits and Trappist monks excepted) who doesn’t exist within a network-and the shape, structure and dynamic of that network may just be the most important thing for marketers to know about them. More important, perhaps, than demographics, attitudes or psychographics. As Mike Arauz puts it, in another wonderful presentation, “The effectiveness of our work is dependent on our ability to engage and empower networks of people connected by shared interests”.

To take this a step further then, perhaps we should stop producing pen portraits of individuals and start providing a portrait of a network:

  • How big is the network?
  • How loose (or tight) are the connections?
  • Are those connections symmetric or asymmetric?
  • What fuels those connections-friendship, a shared cause, shared interests, altruism, personal gain?
From consumer insights to network insights

The second thing that happened is that, having developed a campaign recently around the principles of social spread, a client, not unreasonably, asked how we could be confident that it would scale.

We had a high degree of confidence, no question. We were targeting a highly creative, motivated community-and each member of that community had his or her own fanbase. The core community-and their fanbases-would be actively incentivized to spread the word as far as possible within their personal networks. With luck, it’ll be awesome….

Yet, perhaps inevitably, it’s hard to predict exactly how the campaign will spread. Of course there are some norms we can apply around the number of connections in the average social network and around users’ propensity to interact with content shared by friends or by brands in social channels.  We can use the most robust and predictive data we have. However, we still lack quantitative planning tools that truly reflect the networked consumer. We have vast quantities of data that will tell us what the average 18-20 year old guy is watching or reading but not nearly as much data on what they’re sharing, spreading, using or participating with. We have isolated incidences, greatest hits and occasional case studies of course.

We have very limited data on how sharing varies across different kinds of networks-asymmetric vs symmetric, loose ties versus strong ties- although what we have is fascinating-this presentation from Luke Wroblewski is a must-read for my money. Interesting data is also emerging on why users share content and how this varies across the globe.

However, we still lack a consistent, robust and continuous data stream we can use for forward planning. So perhaps the next generation of planning tools-tools for both account and media planners (if that distinction remains in 5 years time) need to reflect the next generation of planning-planning for the networked consumer. Whoever captures, owns, understands and uses that data will have an extraordinarily powerful tool at their disposal.

16 thoughts on “From consumer insights to network insights

  1. Great post? Totally agree with your thinking, but is that data ever really going to be ownable? So my build would be that getting hung up on understanding everything in advance is less of a requirement than it used to be. Content isn’t shared because of any intrinsic absolute value it has – more for what status is confers on the sharer

    so as an example, a joke is a medium not a message. The message is “i’m a funny guy”. The joke is the means to transmit that information (hence why we remember who told us a joke over what the joke was)

    Which goes back to Griffin & Faris’s points about being remixable being so fundamental. If we are designing stuff to spread based on how it will confer status on the spreader rather than for aesthetic value, it makes sense for people to be able to change it to suit their personal social group. Not least because the way agencies have tended to use demographics has been to group people based on what makes them similar, when what we find most interesting as humans is based on difference, and data is a cumbersome way to plan for difference compared to letting people make stuff out of our stuff – because people know their own social circle better than planners do

    Sorry, bit of a rant, and one I’ll try and expand on on my own blog!

    1. Hi Graeme, thanks for the build. Agree that perfect understanding in advance is less of requirement these days but I think some sense of what we expect to see happen is going to start becoming a requirement. Definitely agree that status is one powerful motivation to share and that remixable content works well against that motivation but I think that’s one motivation that works well against one kind of network and there are others we probably don’t know enough about just yet. Look forward to you exanding on the thinking!

    2. (What follows sounds overly intellectual and patronizing, but please don’t take it that way…)

      A joke is a message.
      The conversation you’re having with someone when you tell the joke is a medium.
      The acknowledgement that you’re a funny guy is what semiotics would call a sanction, but we can call it a reward.
      It combines with pre-existing judgements to alter the opinion that we have of a certain person or thing with long-lasting effects, that’s why we remember that a certain person is funny, and not the individual actions that instigated that opinion.

      Also, content is shared for the subjective value that we give to it AND for the status it confers us, in a balance that depends on individuals’ psychology and on the content itself.
      Those who view sharing as a mean to increase their status will put a higher value on what they share, and be willing to go through greater effort, both in the research and manipulation of that content. However, we’re talking about a minority of people, which goes to explain why there are so few remixes in comparison to passive consumptions.
      Most people instinctively share things that they’d like other people to see for no other reason than, well, they think other people would like it. They know that most of those people will not associate the content with whoever originally shared it, and even if they did they wouldn’t feed back. It’s ok, they’ve already moved on to something else.

    1. Hello sir!

      Glad you liked..I see you’re way ahead of me on the end of the pen portrait!

      Definitely there are some good proxies for what people are sharing but unfortunately not filtered in useful ways-which makes sense as I guess those filters would be valuable. And there’s a big old closed network of sharing goodness over at Facebook we have very little data on…


  2. I love this concept and honestly have not thought about it quite like this. I completely agree that the consumer profile could be dying and the network profile could take it’s place.

    – I wonder how many different network-types are out there?
    – Do they behave differently from each other?
    – What entry points make the most sense for these networks?

    Really cool stuff!

    1. Thanks Griffin. How the different types of networks behave is a fascinating question-it’s why I like the Luke Wroblewski presentation so much, you can suddenly start to see how designing an experience differently changes the kind of network it creates.

  3. Yup, itchy questions raised here for sure.

    Would also like to see what contexts influence the network (mood/time/place/topic etc), and velocity of interactions too to get a sense of the heat/luminosity around content and start scoping content lifecycles.

    Feels like its about time for planners to start actively culture hacking by making & inventing tools which help interrogate, visualise and play around with this stuff in different ways.

  4. I agree with the importance you place on understanding networks, but I don’t see a conflict between consumer insights and network insights.
    Let’s put it this way: consumer insights are about the participants in the network, and network insights are about the relationships and processes between them; we need the former to help us define a relevant message, and the latter to help us deploy/propagate it.

    If we base our strategy on the network, we end up with a strategy about the network, and that’s a risk I see if we focus on network theories in isolation from what we traditionally did in planning, that keeps being crucial.

    1. Excellent point; the people processing information are individuals after all, no matter how networked they may be! All we need to understand is the influence and impact of networks on individuals’ behaviour…

  5. Interesting post. I think tools can only go so far. Yes you can understand a consumer, and their network through tools and research, but in the end it comes down to content and having an effective strategy for creating engaging content people want to share. Campaign planning often overlooks this, possibly through time constraints, client budget constraints, or naivety on the part of those pulling a campaign together. Creating great content takes time and a fair bit of creative juices to get right.

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