One of the best approaches to spreading a viral change campaign is to court key influencers. But recent research also conforms that the influenced may be as critical as the influencers. A recent study found that trying to track down key influencers – people who have extremely large social networks – can in some ways limit a campaign and its viral potential. Change agents instead need to realize that the majority of their audience, not just the well-connected few, is eager and willing to pass along well-designed and relevant messages.
Science News Online reports on related topical research by two social network theorists, Duncan J. Watts of Columbia University and Peter Sheridan Dodds of the University of Vermont in Burlington. These researchers tested the conventional wisdom that experts on a subject matter who love to talk can persuade dozens of others to adopt their opinions. If this were true, an excellent communication strategy would be to find those few critical people, convince them of the value of your change campaign, and leave it to them to persuade others.
Though this theory sounds good, it shouldn’t be your only approach. The researchers compared how far an idea would spread depending on whether it started with a random individual or with an influential individual who was connected to a lot of other individuals. They found that highly influential individuals usually spread ideas more widely, but not that much more widely. More important than the influencers, the researchers found, were the influenced. Once an idea spread to a critical mass of easily influenced individuals, it quickly took hold and continued to spread to other easily influenced individuals.
Dodds compares the spread of ideas to the spread of a forest fire. When a fire turns into a conflagration, no one claims that it was because the spark that began it was so potent. Instead, a fire takes off because of the properties of the larger forest environment: dryness, density, wind, and temperature. So, what’s the takeaway? According to the study, the best way to increase the odds of a person-to-person transmission of an idea is to make it a good idea. Some things are just fun to talk about. One of my favorite quotes by Seth Godin is to simply, “Be remarkable – that which is worthy of remark!”
Are your efforts to change an individual, a team, or the organization at large, worthy of remark? How can you ensure that beyond the network of influencers, the influenced are armed with just the right message to create the broad-based viral effect you need to broaden your reach and your return on impact?

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