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Want to go viral? Influencers won’t be much help if you’re trying to spread a complex idea

Research from the University of Pennsylvania finds that new and provocative ideas emerge at the edge of networks, from people with fewer contacts and little obvious pull.

Want to go viral? Influencers won’t be much help if you’re trying to spread a complex idea
[Photo: Prateek Katyal/Unsplash]
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Marketing and public relations gospel has long banked on the idea that simply reaching the well-connected people at the centers of social networks will create success. If you can just get your brilliant innovation to Kevin Bacon, then virality and riches will follow, right?

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Wrong, say social network researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, who have found that influencers are rather impotent when it comes to changing the behavior and beliefs of others, and might be detrimental to some messaging.

It comes down to the fact that people only adopt complex information from influencers whose beliefs they support. For example, say you’re not a fan of the Kardashians. Because of this, your perception of any idea they support will be tarnished. Multiply that by tens of millions of people.

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that new and provocative ideas emerge at the edge of networks, from people with fewer contacts and little obvious pull. “Our big discovery is that every network has a hidden social cluster in the outer edges that is perfectly poised to increase the spread of a new idea by several hundred percent,” says lead author Damon Centola, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “These social clusters are ground zero for triggering tipping points in society.”

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This is true of spreading anything that might require a few sentences to explain, such as health behaviors, social movements, and political memes.

This is not to say that influencers are devoid of influence. The study finds that influencers are indeed influential in spreading lightweight trivial stories such as gossip.

“The more uncertain people were about a new idea, the more that social influence moved to the people who only had parochial connections, rather than people with many far-reaching social connections,” says coauthor Douglas Guilbeault, a professor of management at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. “The people in the edges of the network suddenly had the greatest influence across the entire community.”

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In fact, the center of the network actually shifts depending on what is spreading. You’ve often seen this in action in celebrity culture: Do mainstream Hollywood stars push cutting-edge ideas? Nope. But your vegan friend who goes to Burning Man? Yep.

The research appears this week in Nature Communications.