Beware of confusing a social network’s weak mojo with Gladwell’s powerful Mavens

Is someone who blabs about a brand on Facebook or another social network site any more valuable to a retailer than the passive “fan” of that product? And if yes, what is that new value? This was discussed at an Email Insider Summit earlier this week. It’s an important question. But as panelists used the format to think aloud, they began confusing two phenomena. One is the real-but-weak power of social network influence. The other is the strong-but-possibly-nonexistent “Gladwellian” Maven.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point talked about Mavens as hubs of influence. These folks are strong connections in a social ecosystem. As mavens on this subject or that, their opinion means much in persuading others. Gladwell based much of his book on the research by Duncan J. Watts, described in his book Six Degrees of Separation: The Science of a Connected Age.

This research, which was itself predicated on Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment, suggested that strong ties do most of the work in spreading a message.

The only catch: When the actual pathways were traced in Watts’ experiment, he found that only 5% of the work was actually done by these supposed hubs. He finally concluded that messages can be spread nearly as efficiently without hubs (i.e., Gladwell’s Mavens), and in fact, these myriad weak connections are the key to a social network’s real power to influence.

Can I Endorse Some Tupperware?

The marketers on the panel at the Summit should have kept this in mind. If MediaPost reported their collective thoughts correctly, they were crowded together on thin ice indeed. According to the MediaPost account (free registeration required), “They agree that a person who simply visits a ‘fan’ page and is a static follower is of minimal value. But people who can be tagged as influencers — who forward information to friends or other contacts that result in transactions — have tremendous value.”

When I first read this, my thought was, “Sure, of course people who refer other people to a brand and get them to buy are valuable.” But it sounds like the power of a pass-along is being highly overvalued. Continuing from this account of the discussion:

Email marketers are working hard on algorithms to quantify the worth of those influencers operating via social media outlets. Tim Schigel of, who spoke on a panel at the MediaPost Email Insider Summit on Wednesday, said: “We’ll see a better understanding of that (soon) … the industry is trying to figure it out.”

Also on the panel was Craig Swerdloff, CEO of LeadSpend, who said the value of a social-media influencer should be “another variable that you put into your algorithm to determine the lifetime value of a customer.”

What is that amount? A back-of-the-envelope calculation could be as follows: If a Netflix customer is worth $9 alone, but that person has 500 Facebook friends, and is able to drive even 1% of them (5) to make a purchase, that individual’s value could be as high as $54.

Yow! That $54 would confer my full value in Netflix’ eyes to everyone else who also becomes a Netflix subscriber. I see the following flaws with even approaching such a calculation:

  1. Lifetime value is a predictive number. It’s a break-even cost of finding someone else to replace me if I should stop using Netflix. That value was probably calculated over a year’s worth of use of the service — probably more. Could these five friends each be as loyal from Day One? And if we waited a year, would I be able to cough up five more Facebook friends who join the service?
  2. How can my friends’ association with me — or even their consideration of an endorsement I send their way — be given credit for their conversion into customers? Are they not Facebook friends of other people who are fans or active ambassadors for the brand? I would guess that they are. And if so, do I get full credit just because I messaged these five about the service? What about the force of these weak connections? Are these many mutual friends who are fans worth nothing?

The value equation being discussed certainly works if I was actively recruiting and selling for a pyramid marketing business (example: “How’d you like to host a Tupperware party and keep half the profits?”) But for something as passive as “You should consider this product,” it would be hard to value an active Maven much higher than the passive fan.

Maybe not any higher at all.

In a world where many weak connections can trump a few strong ones, a better value equation may be an aggregate of all passive fans — where they are also Mavens or not.

Cognitive bias and effective interface design

Joshua Porter recently shared an excellent presentation on leveraging cognitive biases in the design of social networking sites. I’ve followed Joshua’s blog for years, and his thoughts on this subject reinforce my loyalty. You should know that I’ll vehemently defend the time I spend reading his stuff, even if you try to persuade me that I could be reading other, similar blogs. This die-hard loyalty is itself an example of something called a cognitive bias. It shows the Ownership Effect, one of the biases — or heuristics — that secretly influence our decisions and actions.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts. Unknowingly, our brain processes information through filters. These filters add more weight to some facts and less to others. Should real facts be scarce, heuristics can sometimes fill in the blanks.

Are cognitive biases good or bad?

The virtue of gut-based judgments is a subject of heated debate. Some think rational decisions are the best. They point to addiction and racial prejudice as two consequences of unchecked cognitive biases. Others, most famously Malcolm Gladwell, feel that heuristics have more value than they get credit for. His book Blink is full of examples of the gut overruling the brain and proving itself more accurate.

Regardless of your take on the phenomenon, as marketers we can only benefit by getting to know cognitive biases, especially in good web interface design. Lucky us: In the process we can learn a little more of how our own minds make judgments.

But be forewarned. It’s not pretty.

A bias that is particularly interesting is Loss Aversion. If I approached a random sample of people and offered them money based on the outcome of a coin toss, the wagers that they accept and refuse are far from rational. If I said I’d pay $1.25 if they win the coin toss, and the cost of the bet is a dollar, a person’s rational brain would do the math and say “Go for it.” In a fair bet, the win far outweighs the loss.

However, most pass on this offer. They refuse the likely ROI of 25%.

In fact, when the stakes are changed and other amounts are tested, it turns out that the majority of participates will hold onto their dollars until the reward increases to $2.00!

This is not rational. Even when haggling is eliminated (defined as holding out until you get the best possible offer), the majority of people walk away from making a likely profit.

Why do they do this? Because the value of not losing is twice as great as the value of winning. In a 50-50 wager, the value of losing $1.00 is equal to that of gaining $2.00. An absurd 100% ROI is the usual tipping point.

Could loss aversion be inherited from our cave-dwelling days?

Where does this reflex to avoid loss come from? Work by researcher Keith Chen with capuchin monkeys suggests that loss aversion may be innate in humans — and indeed, in other more primitive primates. In his research (purchase of white paper required — otherwise, here’s my blog entry on the topic), he sees exactly the same loss aversion in monkeys that are taught to use tokens in exchange for food as others have observed in humans playing identical games. And I mean exactly, as in: If you just looked at the numbers, you couldn’t tell human response from monkey response.

It really makes you think.

Joshua Porter gave the example of using loss aversion to get people to register on a site, with offers of “Never lose another password!” or “Don’t miss out on opportunities to save!” If the cost of loss is presented as half as great as the cost of preventing a loss, you will likely generate a simple conversion.

Paradoxically, the fear of loss is also seen in gambling. As soon as you sit down at the poker table, your more primal, reptile brain wants to ensure others do not get your chips. Even if you have a weak hand, you might try to bluff your way to victory. Even in the face of almost certain loss. To casinos, the cognitive bias of loss aversion is definitely something good.

Swoopo goads bidders in a chase for merchandise

I’ve observed this phenomenon in a truly scary “auction site.” offers merchandise that you can bid on. But these aren’t true eBay-like auctions, because your bid is lost whether you win the prize or not. Everything from software to flat-screen TVs are presented with starting prices in the teens. Then participants throw their cash at the merchandise, hoping to be the last person to place their money down before the timer ends the contest.

The site’s designers have cleverly avoid gambling laws through a technicality. Their site is a “game of skill.” It is arguable that it takes skill to be the last to bid, and thus take home a prize.

But this contest is more like a carnival game of topple-the-milk-bottles. Every bid bumps up the cost of the item, but also adds seconds to the countdown clock. Yes, it’s a game of skill. But like those who have pitted their wits against a carnival game, there are far more who walk away penniless than victorious. And since there are no sweepstakes laws requiring full disclosure, you enter the game unsure of your odds of winning — even with practice.

So what force brings people back to bid again and again? And what causes bidders to pursue an item so vigorously in the face of disappointing odds?

One reason certainly has to be the thrill of the chase — the determination not to let others get the item you feel rightly entitled to claim. After all, you’ve already committed real dollars to trying to win the item! This is classic loss aversion.

Go to the site and see for yourself. Watch the bidding, which has a level of supposed transparency. You can see your opponents bid against you in real time. To watch is both thrilling and deeply chilling.

Spending time on is like watching the id in pitched battle with the super ego. On this site, due to excellent interface design, the id is the only sure winner.

Why you’ll never find truly brilliant open source web design

Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote about the nature of invention, and a society’s response to it. We revere scientists as heroes, for inventing solutions to our toughest problems. Yet Gladwell points out that these geniuses seem to be more vessels than virtuosos.

The inspiration for a particular technology seems to arise “in the air,” to be picked up by the right inventive minds and made real. In many cases, such as the story of the invention of the telephone, there is more than one inventor. In addition to Alexander Graham Bell, there seems to be a parallel invention of the device by a fellow by the name of Elisha Gray. Why is he unknown? As often happens, the awarding of bragging rights turns into a race to the patent office.

Science historians call this phenomenon “multiples.”

The same creative insights seem to strike a number of inventors — often scattered across the globe — at the same time in history. Gladwell reminds us that the uncertainly of whom was the real originator makes our inclination to name a device after its “inventor” a dicey proposition at best:

We think we’re pinning medals on heroes. In fact, we’re pinning tails on donkeys.

This made me think of open source applications. Perhaps it’s fitting that we do not commonly know the single inventor of PHP technology — not because so many have built upon this foundation, but because the foundation itself was “in the air,” ready to be interpreted into code. I use PHP as an example, but any open source innovation will do to make my point.

Few would argue with the genius behind PHP. So why don’t we see multiples of web design? Aren’t good designs of sites “in the air” as well?

Singulars versus Multiples

Gladwell provides a hint to an answer when he states, “[a historian’s observation] about scientific geniuses is clearly not true of artistic geniuses.” He goes on as follows:

A work of artistic genius is singular … Shakespeare owned Hamlet because he created him, as none other before or since could. Alexander Graham Bell owned the telephone only because his patent application landed on the examiner’s desk a few hours before Gray’s.

I find this distinction fascinating, because both types of genius are put into play in the creation of a great interactive experience. I love that one part of the process — the technology — uses the work of many to channel something that is clearly superior to others it replaces, yet is impossible to attribute to a single creator. Yet the part of the process that creates the most intimate parts of that application — the design — are invariably one person’s handiwork.

That is the true genius of web design, and it explains why a digital world will never make a web designer less “singular” than, say, a great playwright or composer.

ProjectStars CEO describes how this new site blends job board with social networking

I’m returning from a holiday hiatus with recharged batteries and major content changes to Digital Solid. Come back often or subscribe to find exclusive interviews with online news-makers, plus more news and tips you’ve told me you appreciate as marketers in an increasingly technological world.

Michael Beddows - CEO - ProjectStarsTo kick things off in 2008, I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with Michael Beddows, CEO of the new projectstars b-to-b online social network. This site is part project board, part social network and part blogging cooperative. It’s a novel mix that has already attracted an impressive critical mass of participants.

Q: projectstars has been around for almost four months. Has the growth you’ve seen in that time surprised you, or was it about what you were expecting?

MB: Considering that our marketing over the past few months has consisted entirely of word-of-mouth, we’re very pleased with both the quantity and quality of our membership growth. This organic growth has also provided us with some great feedback on how we can refine our equity blogging approach.

Q: In a blog entry you mention that there are generally three types of online communities, and they mirror the Malcolm Gladwell The Tipping Point connector types. Of the three, projectstars is a “Maven” network, where you’ve written, “Content is king … For those who are knowledgeable, these [Maven] sites are a great place to showcase expertise and get discovered.” Can you name other communities that follow this “maven model,” where members are encouraged to promote themselves and their expertise?

MB: LinkedIn has an Answers section where members can vie to be nominated as the “Top Expert.” The difference with projectstars is that our members are not restricted to a Q&A format and can participate in more engaging conversations. projectstars is also more amenable to search engine optimization, which means that our member contributions are more discoverable in search engines. It’s one thing to be seen as an expert within the confines of LinkedIn, quite another to be seen as an expert on the Internet at large.

Q: Your site says that you’re “blurring the line” between job sites and business/social communities. This is extraordinary enough, in that I’ve never seen another site that is certifiably both, as yours is. But what has struck me as more novel is that your business model sounds a lot like a cooperative. A week ago you conducted your first share giveaway, where 100 members with the most earned points receive their shares in the business. This sounds unique for a social network site. Is there any other community that you’ve modeled this against?

MB: We believe we are the first social network to offer members shares. We think this is the way any online community should operate as it’s the members who make the community. It’s quite possible that someday, many social networks and blog communities will become equity blogs, where members band together to form a cooperative.

Q: Speaking of blurred lines, I like the Facebook login feature, which allows anyone who is already part of Facebook to register with projectstars from a page within Facebook. I was curious how the tie-in would benefit me, and saw that friends in Facebook who are also on projectstars are immediately identified and added as a projectstars buddy. What a cool way to tie the two communities together. Has this Facebook connection helped spread the word about projectstars?

MB: With so many sites out there, anything which makes registration easier is good in our books, so the Facebook login helps in that respect. We are also developing a Facebook application so that your projectstars blogs will show up on your profile and others can vote on them – once this is completed we do expect that will help spread the word.

Q: Are you optimistic about future tie-ins with other social networks through OpenSocial? How is this work progressing?

MB: We are members of the OpenSocial development lists and are tracking progress closely, however OpenSocial specifications are still in development so we expect it will be later in Q1 2008 before we see anything from projectstars on this front. We are also investigating the possibility of projectstars itself being an OpenSocial container. projectstars members can already set up their own personalized page of projectstars content, RSS feeds, and widgets at so this would be an ideal place to host OpenSocial apps.

Q: Blogging is a great way for domain experts to show off their knowledge. On the other hand, many of these same people already have one or more blogs. Are you looking at ways to port “outside” blog content into your site, or do you simply want to encourage bloggers to move their tent within the walls of projectstars?

MB: We did investigate linking members blogs to the system, however there were two problems with this. First, the projectstars community structure means that automating where posts appear is not easily possible, and second we realize that although people do have their own blogs, they don’t always blog about one subject, and sometimes blog about personal/life issues. As we want to keep projectstars content focused on the topics provided by the 300 communities, we decided to enable blogging within the system.

Continue reading “ProjectStars CEO describes how this new site blends job board with social networking”