Monday, March 21, 2011

The Science of Social Networks #2: The Mating Game

"Your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you feel, think, and do." That may be true when it comes to behaviour like eating habits and leisure activities - but what about the influence that our friends have over us in the realm of relationships? Do the same rules apply to the mating game, and if so, how can marketers tap into them in order to "meet" potential lovers?

The Science of Social Networks Series will cover some of the more interesting insights and findings from the Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler book "Connected" and discuss how they might apply to marketers attempting to build closer connections with their consumers. Part 2, "The Mating Game", will explore how our social networks can influence our relationships with both lovers and brands.

Birds of a Feather...

The first insight about what people are looking for in a potential mate has less to do with our friends and more to do with ourselves - how we view ourselves, to be more exact. How we view ourselves seems to have a direct influence on who we end up connecting with. In a nutshell: we look for those who are a lot like us. Christakis and Fowler call this "Homophily", the tendency of like to befriend like.
"People search for - or in any case, find - partners they resemble [in terms of their attributes] and partners who are of comparable 'quality'."

You might be thinking, "What about the saying, 'Opposites Attract'?" That saying may be true, but homophily seems to apply to a certain type of relationship - the long-term. "We expect more homophily in long-term relationships and less in short-term ones," say the authors. In fact, according to their research, 72% of marriages exhibit homophily - couples that are alike.
"The surprising power of social networks is that they bring likes together and serve up soul mates in the same room."

What can marketers take away from the idea of homophily? Before attempting to attract potential mates (ie. new users or "friends"), they must look inward, so to speak, and truly understand what kind of person - or personality - their brand has. What are its characteristics, values, and beliefs? How would the brand think, act, and behave if it were a real person? How would it talk? What would it say? For example, the Apple brand is about thinking differently, is focused on design and simplicity, and is always on the cutting edge, and it attracts users who are like that, too. Only after understanding and agreeing on the personality of their brand can marketers truly understand what type of mates would be suitable for long-term relationships.

"Arranged" Marriages

Now that you know who you are as a brand - how about an introduction? The funny thing is, most brands are going about fishing for potential mates in the wrong way - the "self-introduction". Any advertisement that you see on traditional media like TV and OOH and most new media like banner advertising and Google AdWords is a self-introduction from a brand to a potential mate. The environment may be a bit different - you're not in a bar, but on your couch, you're not on a dating site, but doing a Google search - but the behaviour is the same: "Hey, look at me. I'm interesting and might be good for you. Want to meet?"

In the real world, however, the real mating game, only one-third of people in a relationship met through self-introductions. One-third! Only one-third of relationships begin between complete strangers. How then, are people meeting each other? Easy: through their friends. According to the authors, over one-third of relationships begin with an introduction by a mutual friend. When moving beyond close friends, the percentage grows even higher: 68% of people met their spouses after being introduced to each other via someone they knew.
"The majority of people find spouses and partners by meeting friends of friends and other people to whom they are loosely connected."

The application to marketers, in this case, is clear. People are more likely to be introduced to a potential long-term mate through direct recommendations from their social network. How easy is it, right now, to directly recommend a brand or product to a friend? When it comes to close friends, it's not that difficult: we talk to them face to face and spread the word organically "I just started using this new product, and it's really great - you should try it." We might even send them a quick email with a link to the product's website. But this relies completely on the willingness of the consumer to do that, and only really impacts their close friends. In order to facilitate quicker, easier, more direct recommendations of products among one's greater social network, brands will have to do a better job of integrating "recommendation engines" into every interaction and touchpoint with their consumers.

She said what about him?

The final lesson from the mating game: reviews matter. This is especially true when it comes to marketing to women. As Christakis and Fowler put it, "Copying the preferences of other women may be an efficient strategy for deciding who is a desirable man when there is a cost (in terms of time or energy) in making this assessment or when it is otherwise hard to decide." So when it comes to choosing potential mates, women find it extremely helpful to hear what other women have to say about them. Funnily enough, reviews don't seem to have as much of an influence on men: "When selecting mates, males tend to be less choosy than females and so are less concerned with the opinions of anyone else to begin with."

Reviews are, however, especially impactful when they come from those who have previously been in a relationship with the mate in question, and would know the inside scoop on whether or not they were worth the time and effort. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has shown that woman can do a better job of predicting how much she will enjoy a date with a man by asking the previous woman who dated him what he was like than by knowing all about the man. According to the authors:
"While a woman can, with a glass, assess for herself various attributes of a man that might be associated with his genetic fitness (his appearance, his height, his dancing ability), other traits related to his suitability as a reproductive partner (his parenting ability, his likelihood of being sweet to his kids) can require more time and effort to evaluate. In those cases, the assessment of another woman can be very helpful."

Marketers should be encouraged to facilitate the reviews of their brands and products by consumers as much as possible. This can mean following up with a consumer a few weeks after their purchase, asking them to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences about a product with others - perhaps for a small incentive. It can also mean encouraging instant reviews at the point-of-purchase, using kiosks or tablets, capturing the excitement and adrenaline of a new purchase and siphoning that energy off to one's friends. Finally, it can mean asking consumers for a review at the point when the product or service has had the most impact on their lives. For example, imagine if an insurance company's customer was asked to write a review right after a major accident, when they were most likely to be grateful that they have the coverage and the help from the brand that they're with.

And so, we've learned that there is definitely a lesson or two (or three...) on how to start relationships with potential consumers that we can learn by observing the real-life mating game. There's only one more question to ask: do you know anyone who might be interested?

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