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Why Social Networks Work

October 9, 2008 

Last fall, I shared a lunch table with a group of Twitter enthusiasts at a social media event. One of them said something that crystallized perfectly the reason that social networks have taken the world by storm.

My lunchtime companion was a career public relations professional who had grown up reading an assortment of daily newspapers. They were his principal news source. Since adopting Twitter, however, he had stopped reading newspapers almost entirely. The service they had historically provided — directing him to the most important stories of the day — had shifted to his network of online friends. He now relied upon his contacts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sources to tell him what was interesting and what should matter.

Bolt From the Blue
This insight was a bolt from the blue for me because it summed up the reasons people are shifting so rapidly to friends networks and away from conventional media. Think of your own reading habits. Chances are you get several newsletters each day from various trusted sources. You also probably get the occasional e-mail from your friends pointing you to interesting stories on the Web. Which of these messages are you likely to open first? Which are you faster to click on? If you’re like most people, the message from the friend is always going to get your most immediate attention.

We trust our friends because we know them and they know us. Whether we’ve shared a workplace, a living space or some other experience with them, we have given them insight into our interests and motivations that no institution can match. Professional editors are very good at assessing relevance, determining importance and creating hierarchies of information, but they don’t know us as people. We’ll never let them in like we let in our friends.

Life Feeds
Facebook pioneered a concept called the News Feed that has been widely adopted by other networks. When you log on to Facebook, you’re treated to an immediate stream of information about other people in your network. You immediately know about changes in their lives, where they’ve gone on vacation and what project they’re working on. You also know what they’re reading, what conferences they’re attending and what they think you should be reading and attending. By virtue of their familiarity with you, they have a higher priority in your life. Other services like FriendFeed have expanded this idea to a broad range of online services. Twitter adds immediacy and certain intimacy that the other services don’t.

The “friending” feature of social networks is the single most important factor underlying their success. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for marketers. The challenge is to get behind the many walls that people have thrown up around themselves to screen out marketing messages. The opportunity is to find a way to connect with them at a level that grants us admission to their inner circle. As we know instinctively, that’s a very good place to be.

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