For those who I haven’t bored to death talking about it, one of the things I’ve been reading up lately is social network analysis (SNA). I’m not claiming for one second to be an expert and probably opening the door for me to be shot down. But here goes…
Fingers crossed its going to solve all the problems of the PR industry, if not I’m wasted approximately 100 hours of my life. At the same time though, there’s nothing really all that special about it, like Social Object Theory, its just another way of thinking about communications.
From what I’ve read so far, social network analysis concerns itself more with the flow of information and the great thing is that it is all measurable (yep, numbers and that). No doubt, there will be some of you reading this post thinking “but its about the content, its about the conversation” – which is entirely true, but let’s stop being daft – we are not going to start sending people turds on the stick because we have a new toy to play with. This is just a way of targeting to make sure the message reaches the right people.
If you want an explanation looky here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_network – I’ve spent too many nights writing and re-writing the introduction of blog posts, trying to explain this stuff in a simple way, as such I now can’t be arsed. This post is going to dive straight in.
Within SNA, there are lots of ways you can measure the importance of a person/blog/website within a network. Below I’ve highlighted a few of them.
Look! A diagram!
To illustrate my points I will be using a basic sociograph called Krackhardt’s Kite – a popular reference point in SNA. It’s a simple undirected graph, which although there’s slightly more to it, basically means that if I read your blog, you automatically read mine. However, the principles are largely the same with directed graphs. I’ll try and explain things as I go on (I’m trying to write this so that you guys know what I’m talking about, but any proper SNA geeks stumbling to the blog don’t think I’m an idiot). If you need any of the terms explaining, this site is a good reference point: http://tinyurl.com/1rl8
This is roughly translated as popularity. Quite simply, it is the number of lines (sometimes called edges/arcs depending on whether they are undirected or directed and also known as paths, semi-paths, walks, etc, depending on what you are looking for – can you see why this blog post has taken me so long to write?!) the little round yellow things (the proper term is nodes, vertices or actors, again depending on what the network is illustrating) has. I think the correct definition of degree centrality is the number of ‘neighbours’ a node has. In the diagram above, node 7 has the highest degree centrality. It has six other nodes linking to it.
In the blogosphere (Hello Geeks!), this could be the number of inbound links a blog has. In the UK PR industry, I’m guessing node 7 would probably be your Neville Hobson‘s,David Brain‘s or Geordie chav, Stephen Davies‘ blogs.
You would target these when you want to break a story to as many people as possible very quickly. You might not reach everyone but it would create a massive, immediate impact. For example, if you had an exclusive story that was breaking, these guys would be the ones you would target.
It’s no surprise to find that the blogs I’ve literally plucked from the air have been going for some time. ‘Preferential attachment’ describes how popular websites become even more popular as time passes. If they are already an established, influential blog, then new bloggers will continue to link to them in the future. With reference to communications, PRs should be looking to develop these long-term relationships where possible in the same way they cultivate their journalist relations.
In ‘traditional’ PR, nodes with a high degree centrality would probably be the mainstream media.
This is a measurement of how close one node is to all the others in the network. For example, for node 7 to pass a message to node 9 it would have to pass through three lines. In the example network, nodes 4 and 5 have the highest closeness centrality. Mat suggested in a recent blog post:
Instead of looking for WOM influencers, why don’t we look for areas of high potential — and target those people who are likely to be receiving lots of WOM stimuli?
Nodes with a high closeness centrality are more likely to be to be exposed to a message in a network. Conversely, if we targeted a blog with high closeness centrality, then the information would be spread throughout the network much easier.
But let’s look at it another way. This is not strictly closeness centrality (I’m just making it up as I go along…) but related. What if we singled out a specific node which spread the information to the whole network much more quickly? For example, if we seeded information with node 5 it would take 4 steps (including the initial seeding) for the message to spread to the entire network.
However, if we seeded content with node 8 we would see this:
Therefore we would target node 8. Apparently, I’ve just read that this is actually the Markov centrality, but I haven’t done enough research to really comment on it, so instead, happy to admit I’m making this stuff up.
With regards to PR and blogger outreach, I can see this targeting being more relevant when focusing on smaller, possibly niche groups – in the SNA world also known as cliques. Let’s say we wanted to target a group of IT directors based in lovely Bradford who blog (by my reckoning, there’s about seven of them – there’s only 100 computers in the whole of Bradford believe it or not) with a consistent flow of news. You have budget to build a relationship with them but Node 7, the most popular guy doesn’t have time to go for lunch (he works also works night shifts as a taxi driver and Sundays in the local chippie). Who would you target to build a relationship with? Possibly 8? If you need to make a major last minute announcement (e.g. the venue of an event has moved), targeting node 8 would get the message out the quickest.
Lets take for example two offices based in New York and London, the bosses of which both have PAs. Top level information flow between the two offices would more than likely involve the two PAs, neither are particularly popular (in the degree sense, not how nice they are). They would be the ones with high betweeness, take one of them out and the flow of information stops.
Another way of looking at it is by introducing a concept called ‘The Strength of Weak Ties‘. Without going into too much detail, it explains how your good mates might be good for a laugh down the pub or a visit to the strippers (it doesn’t use this example in the paper), but they are unlikely to tell you something you didn’t already know – their friends are your friends already. A weak tie, on the other hand, is someone you are acquainted with. Because they do not necessarily share the same friendship group, they are actually more useful because they can introduce you to new people or pass on new information.
The world needs these intermediaries to facilitate the spread of information and share ideas.
In the first diagram, the node with the highest betweeness centrality would be node 8. In a massive consumer campaign targeted at lots of different segments (and with limited budgets) these bloggers would be the ones who you can count on to spread the message between different sets of people.
Another way to look at it is during a crisis – a blogger has some how managed to get their hands on some highly confidential information and you don’t want it to break into the mass media. He’s decided to blog about it but only has about five readers who all only have a handful of readers each anyway even if they decided to blog about it. The exception is that one of the bloggers’ readers is known to be a well known journalist. It is this person that you should be most concerned about contacting to broker some sort of deal.
Much more to this stuff than I’ve written about
With my limited PR experience, I’ve tried to illustrate the strengths of each with examples with how you can look at influence in different ways. There are others such as Eigenvector centrality (which is not about how many people read blogger A’s blogs, but who reads it – Google uses this as a basis for its search engines), random walk centrality, bridging centrality, etc which I haven’t even touched upon yet. The truth is you would be thinking about all of them (and to be honest they overlap a lot anyway). Although I don’t know for certain (I’m looking into it now), I suspect you would place more emphasis depending on the type of network you are investigating. It’s possible to work out just how degree/closeness/betweeness centralised a network actually is and base your targeting around that.
But this is about efficiency. Although many PROs will claim to be experts at building relationships with bloggers, the truth of the matter is that there are just too many. You might have had an occasional pint with Wadds or Brucie, but how often will you be contacting them to pitch stuff (unless you just happen to be a plant seller and stumbled upon Wadds’s recent unhealthy infatuation with allotments). We work within an agency and probably work across loads of different sectors, I haven’t the time to really build relationships with many (and don’t lie, you don’t either), SNA could be a way of picking out the most effective ones.
Then it depends on the type of information you have. In an informal group, I’m likely to tell my friends about my workmate Roger‘s heroic quest to stop drinking for the whole year, despite my teasing. However, my friends would not tell their friends about Roger. Jesus this is getting complicated now. Competitions, news, reviews – they are all different types of content. Therefore, would you change the story (like you would/should with journos) depending on a blogger’s position in a network?
What about the campaign? Long term? Short term? Consumer? B2B? Does it change again?
There’s also an issue that I’m assuming the information will always flow from A to B via the shortest path (the correct term is its geodisic distance). Often this is not the case and while I might subscribe directly to Mashable, I might read the news on Jed or Jaz‘s blog first.
Are we thinking too much about this? I had a pub conversation with Marshall Manson just over a year ago when we were talking about metrics. Marshall said that you know it’s right in your gut. Though he’s got about a million years more experience in PR than I have so that’s easy for him to say.
It would be great to get old school PROs thoughts on the three criteria I’ve outlined above. I can seriously see SNA changing the face of PR, I just don’t quite have the experience of some of yous yet.
Right that’s taken me the whole of Saturday. See I told you, I’m still alive. See you in six month’s time.