Imagine that you are a CEO who wants to promote an innovative new product: a time management app or a fitness program. Should you send the product to Kim Kardashian in the hopes that she likes it and spread the word to her legions of Instagram followers? The answer would be ‘yes’ if successfully conveying new ideas or new behaviors were as easy as showing them to as many people as possible.

However, a study to appear in the journal Nature Communication finds that as important and revered as social influencers seem to be, in fact, they are unlikely to change a person’s behavior by example – and could in fact be damaging to the cause.


“When social influencers present ideas that are at odds with their followers’ worldviews – say, for example, that vaccination is safe and effective – they may unintentionally upset the people they seek to persuade because people usually only follow influencers whose ideas confirm their beliefs about the world, ”says Damon Centola, Elihu Katz professor of communications, sociology and engineering at Penn and lead author of the article.

So what strategy do we adopt if we want to use an online or real-world neighborhood network to ‘crash’ a new idea? Is there anyone in a social network who is good at conveying new beliefs? The new study provides a surprising answer: yes, and these are the people you least expect. To stimulate a change in mindset, target small groups of people on the “periphery” or on the fringes of a network.

Centola and Douglas Guilbeault, Ph.D., a recent Annenberg graduate, studied over 400 public health networks to find out which people could disseminate new ideas and behaviors most effectively. They tested every possible person in each network to determine who would be most effective at delivering everything from celebrity gossip to vaccine acceptance.

“Dozens of algorithms currently in use by companies looking to spread new ideas are based on the misconception that everything is spread virally,” says Centola. “But this study shows that the ability of information to pass through a social network depends on the type of information it is.”

So if you want to spread gossip – easy-to-digest, non-controversial information – go ahead and hit an influencer. But if you want to convey new ways of thinking that challenge an existing set of beliefs, look for hidden places on the outskirts and plant the seed there.

“Our big finding,” Centola added, “is that every network has a social cluster hidden in the outer edges that is perfectly ready to increase the spread of a new idea by several hundred percent. These social clusters are the point. zero to trigger social tipping points. “

Centola and Guilbeault applied their findings to predict the spread of a new microfinance program to dozens of communities in India. By considering what was spreading through the networks, they were able to predict where it must have come from and if it would spread to the rest of the population. Their predictions identified the exact people who were most influential in increasing adoption of the new program.

Guilbeault, now an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley, noted, “In a sense, we found that the center of the network changed depending on what was going on. The more uncertain people were about a new idea, the more influence shifted to people who had only church connections, rather than people with many high profile social connections. Guilbeault added, “The people at the edges of the network suddenly had the greatest influence over the whole community. ”

The results “overturn our notions of social influence for marketing, sales and social movements,” says Centola. “Not everything is propagated the same across a network,” he adds, “and we can use this knowledge to identify hot spots in the social graph. This can allow us to fine-tune our strategies. network to effect positive social change. “

Centola is the author of the new book Change: How to Make Big Things Happen (Little Brown, 2021).


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