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Monday 31 December 2007

Following on from my previous post 'It's a small world', historically, and even now, service design has been all about understanding the motivations of the individual. Social network analysis on the other hand is based on the view that the attributes of individuals are less important than their relationships and ties with other actors within the network, and it is by exploiting these that you can really begin to focus on who's really important in your user network.

As an enterprise, social or otherwise, our users are most likely to belong to a random/exponential social network, but we want it to be a
scale free network with hubs that positively reinforce our service. Now that we’re talking specifically about networks of people, this is where Tipping Point theory comes in. The tipping point is a concept related to collective behaviour and the fact that any behaviour pattern has a threshold at which point there is a sudden, marked and significant change. Tipping points are what makes marketing go viral; turning products into the epidemic type fads that companies dream about.

What’s relevant about Gladwell’s book in terms of networks and business intelligence, however, is that he identifies not only the importance of word of mouth and social interaction in the take-up of ideas, products and services, but also three key types of individual that are needed to achieve this - Connectors, Mavens and Salespersons. I’m not going to go into detail here, but Connectors are people with huge numbers of network links, Mavens are people who research everything before they buy, compare and search out all the best deals, and Salespersons are the persuaders i.e. the ones who find a good or deal and have the drive and power to convince others and sell their ideas.

In the real world, Connectors need charm and personality, but I’d argue that online it is different. Connectedness is much easier and more democratic online as people are already well connected through search engines. The really connected ones then are those who not only share their views, but those whose content or opinion is considered valuable by others and visited frequently, added to favourites and followed through RSS. These then, are our hubs. The ideal version are a personality combination of Maven and Salesperson, and if you are an enterprise, your dream hub is someone is also well connected offline too.

The first step is then to set up mechanisms to identify these ideal hubs. Second is to focus on these individuals and try and get them evangelising about our enterprise. In the bricks and mortar arena there is little hope of exploiting member networks because you have no easy way of getting people talking to each other. The online channel however, presents the perfect opportunity.

The basic framework needed in order to leverage the power of our member/user network is to make sure the website provides easy user friendly opportunities for people to comment, review and interact, possibly with profiles that display their activity along with incentives for them to share information. Basic web analytics software will help, but we're really going to need to invest in or develop
network analytics software, involve some intelligent analysts who can both model the audience and help shift it from a random to a scale-free network, and of course use a forward thinking marketing approach to engage and increase the number of ‘hubs’ and really drive word of mouth take up.

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