Maryland Smith Research / June 6, 2019

Identifying High Influencers in Social Networks

Examining Influence In A New Way

Identifying High Influencers in Social Networks

Individuals in social networks with disproportionately high levels of influence are prime targets of marketing practitioners and researchers. But what characteristic best defines a high influencer? Expertise level? It’s more complicated, according to research in Marketing Science by marketing professor David Godes at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

In crowded online social networks, where followers tend to seek and consume content aligned with their own belief and values, a high influencer is not the most expert or knowledgeable in a given area. Why? Rather than seeking out three experts, a follower in this case is apt to focus on just one agent who is adept at finding and linking to the three experts. “Given network size constraints, this allows for a more efficient process of tie formation,” write Godes and co-author Tuan Q. Phan at the National University of Singapore.

Godes and Phan conducted a series of computer-based, social-network simulations to compare the effects of two types of influencers: “independents” (first-hand experts) and “imitators,” who collect and disseminate information from multiple sources.

The findings signal that "marketers looking to disseminate ideas and products through social networks should carefully consider the environment, medium, community, and the communication domain for the word-of-mouth message,” they write. Moreover, the results “strongly suggest that one should not necessarily focus on recruiting the (possibly, expensive) high-information ‘experts’ to launch viral campaigns. Again, expertise may be a poor proxy for influence. Instead, focusing on those who are one step away from experts may be at least as effective and potentially much more efficient.” 

Read more: The Evolution of Influence Through Endogenous Link Formation is published by Marketing Science. 

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