Identifying High Influencers in Social Networks

Examining Influence In A New Way

Jun 06, 2019
As Featured In 
Marketing Science

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. 

About the Author(s)

David Godes is a Professor of Marketing. He holds a Ph.D. and S.M. in Management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the Smith School faculty in 2009 after teaching for ten years at Harvard Business School. His teaching experiences include undergraduate, graduate and executive courses ranging from Introduction to Marketing to Business-to-Business Marketing and Sales Management. His academic research focuses on two areas: sales management and social networks/word of mouth. His work has appeared in top journals like Marketing Science, Management Science and Quantitative Marketing & Economics and he has authored numerous case studies on leading global firms like Federal Express, Avon Products, Terumo (Japan), SKF (Sweden), XM Satellite Radio, BMW, IBM, Hasbro, BzzAgent and Lincoln Financial. His research and opinions have been cited in a wide range of popular press outlets including The New York Times, Forbes, The Economist and The Boston Globe. He has consulted and/or delivered executive education courses to many firms, small and large, located in the U.S. and abroad.

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