Marketers Should Forget About the Social Graph

One of the most buzzed-about terms right now is “social graph.” But does the social graph really matter to marketers?

The social graph is the personal connections a person has online – friends and family for the most part – and most of these simple connections happen almost exclusively on Facebook. The problem arises when marketers base their social marketing strategies on the social graph. They think that just because people are connected, they have similar interests, and they blanket messages and promotions to their fans’ social graphs hoping these people will also become customers.

Marketers need to give up their obsession with the social graph and shift their focus to identifying individuals who are consuming and sharing content in relevant topics or categories. These are the people who are the “first to know” and are instrumental in spreading content to the others they know who share the same interest. These people may or may not be connected through social media, but they share a common interest in a particular brand, product category, entertainment genre or news content. These interest groups – or “interest graphs” – are much more valuable to a marketer than the social graph.

Why? Think of it this way. Just because my college friend Bill (a junk food nut) and I (a health food freak) are connected on Facebook doesn’t mean we both like Doritos. In this case, Frito Lay would be much better off marketing Doritos to Bill’s interest graph instead of his social graph. Meanwhile, a manufacturer of outdoor equipment probably already markets to affluent, city-based men aged 25-40, but that doesn’t mean a person in this demographic has a social graph interested in the same products. His wife, co-workers, and siblings may not be interested in outdoor activities at all – maybe they are arty types or couch potatoes.

In other words, valuable brand influence spreads across interest networks, not social networks.

So how can marketers identify the interest graphs most valuable to their brand?

Focus marketing efforts more on influencers and experts and less on people’s friends. In many cases, we might listen to our friends, but are more often influenced by experts, authorities and fans of specific subjects. For the outdoor retailer, it would make more sense to target messages and promotions to members of an online mountain-biking community, populated by experts and aficionados, and to offer incentives to influential members to get the word out about their bikes. But targeting these same ads to the friends and family of its best customers would likely yield far fewer conversions – because just an incidental percentage of these bike riders’ family and friends will also be avid cyclists.

Identify shared interests. When people share an interest in a topic or a specific piece of content, they are motivated to spread the word. So the first step in building word-of-mouth for your brand or products is to identify the content that is of greatest interest to your key audiences (using social media analytics), then create more of it. Then, enable the discovery of this content by key influencers and everyone who is part of this shared “interest graph” via blogs, Facebook, Twitter and forums.

Up the sharing. Our social graphs are basically ”owned” by Facebook, but our interest graphs span many modes of interaction: Twitter, Facebook, email, blogs and discussion forums. Members of a single interest group will likely use all of these tools to connect and communicate with one another, so make sure to clearly identify these sharing paths. Find out where your interest group shares, what they share and with whom – then target and retarget these users with relevant advertising as they pursue interesting content across the Web based on their sharing patterns.

The truth is, most of us are influenced everyday by people we’ve never met. Our friends and family are just that – friends and family. The social graph is great for sharing general news and information as well as lots and lots of photos and videos, but it falls flat for marketers who want to build influence among the groups most likely to be interested in their products. It’s time for brands to embrace the interest graph once and for all.


Ben Straley is the CEO of Meteor Solutions, a social audience targeting firm. Follow him on Twitter @bstraley.

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