Study finds surprising source of social influence

How does a new product promote itself successfully? A new study in the journal Nature Communications finds that as prominent and revered as social influencers seem to be—think Kim Kardashian promoting a new product on Instagram—in reality, they are unlikely to change a person’s behavior by example, and might actually be detrimental to the cause. But why?

cartoon social media influencer headshot against background of social media icons.

“When social influencers present ideas that are dissonant with their followers’ worldviews—say, for example, that vaccination is safe and effective—they can unintentionally antagonize the people they are seeking to persuade because people typically only follow influencers whose ideas confirm their beliefs about the world,” says Damon Centola, Elihu Katz Professor of Communication, Sociology, and Engineering at the Annenberg School for Communication, and senior author on the paper.

So what strategy do we take if we want to use an online or real world neighborhood network to “plant” a new idea? Is there anyone in a social network who is effective at transmitting new beliefs? The study delivers a surprising answer: Yes, and it’s the people you’d least expect to have any pull. To stimulate a shift in thinking, target small groups of people in the “outer edge” or fringe of a network.

Centola and Douglas Guilbeault, a recent Annenberg graduate, studied more than 400 public health networks to discover which people could spread new ideas and behaviors most effectively. They tested every possible person in every network to determine who would be most effective for spreading everything from celebrity gossip to vaccine acceptance.

“Dozens of algorithms that are currently used by enterprises seeking to spread new ideas are based on the fallacy that everything spreads virally,” says Centola. “But this study shows that the ability for information to pass through a social network depends on what type of information it is.”

The findings “turn our notions about social influence for marketing, sales, and social movements upside down,” says Centola. “Not everything spreads through a network in the same way,” he adds, “and we can use this knowledge to pinpoint hotspots in the social graph. This can allow us to accurately tailor our network strategies for effecting positive social change.”

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.