Thresholds and social persuasion

I’ve written about thresholds in previous posts but I wanted to refresh my memory before I further explore the role of influentials in shaping our trends and opinions. It’s going to be a long few posts until I get to the point which I want to make, but bear with me.In every day life, a threshold is the point that ‘something happens’ to a stable state in a certain situation. For example, water has a temperature threshold before it boils, you’ll have a threshold for the number of beers it takes you before you need to pee or for the number of packed tube trains you let go in the morning before braving it and squeezing on next to the sweaty fella.

It has a similar meaning in a social sense. People in your network have an influence on you. The network model of thinking is based on contagion and suggests that this manifests itself in a number of ways – from you accepting societal norms, to the purchase of a new car. Your threshold is the number of people who are influencing you at the time you ‘change’ and can be written as a fraction or probability.

The more people that influence you to do something, the more likely to are to do it. The lower your threshold, the less persuasion required. For example, if it takes 2/3 of your friends to purchase a new style of clothing, then you will also buy it once that bar has been reached. If only 1/5 of your peers has already purchased those pair of tights  then you are unlikely to.

More formally, thresholds can be written as:

The probability of  adopting B is certain if the number of people who influence i () is equal or greater than i’s threshold (). Conversely there is no chance of i adopting if the number of people is less than its threshold.

An example I’ve used previously to explain how thresholds work is the smacking of children. Very simply, if more people in your social group smack their child then you would be more likely to do so (or certainly believe it to be more acceptable).
Boring illustration

Let’s take a real life example. This is a pretty dull story even by my network analysis standards (even worse is that I’m actually embellishing it slightly). A year ago, Jonathan Brigden, my former Porter Novelli colleague, was looking at getting a new games console because he’d become tired of playing Brian Lara Cricket on his PSOne. As one of the digi geeks at Porter Novelli he assumed I was a gamer and asked my opinion. I suggested he get an XBox 360 because I have one and the games are probably more suited to him. He was aware that the XBox would be more within his price range than a PS3 and he could also access Sky channels using his dad’s subscription but yet he still remained unconvinced.

However, two weeks later, he overheard a conversation I had with Roger, another colleague (who had just purchased an Xbox 360 on my recommendation) about playing Fifa 10 online against each other. This followed a conversation he had with two other colleagues (Chris – who bought one based on Roger’s recommendation – and Scalo) who had also recently purchased one. Having realised that there were now four of us who already had an Xbox 360, he purchased one at next pay day so we could all play each other online. We literally spent the whole of the next six months playing Fifa 10 together and geeking off about it at work via emails. At the same time, we also ostracised Dave and Spence who own a PS3 from our incredibly interesting email banter.

We can illustrate his decision making as such:

Jonathan adopts at week 4, by that time three out of five of his trusted colleagues have an Xbox 360, therefore his threshold would be 0.6. Roger, who adopts at week 2 would have a threshold of 0.33, at his time of adoption he only has one out of his three peers with an Xbox 360. Just to reiterate the importance of the social aspect of this, now that all of us have gone our separate ways, none of us talk to each other apart from via Xbox Live.
Contagion is not persuasion

But it’s obviously not always so simple. Although some people like to compare the spread of trends with virused, there are a whole number of factors that influence whether a person adopts an innovation other than simply being exposed to it. Depending on what you read, there are various names for these types of influences, however, the following seem to cover most of it:

Sometimes called ‘social recommendation’. This is the recommendations or information about the innovation from someone else. i.e. A neighbour or magazine review telling you to purchase a certain brand of paint because it lasts longer

Financial/ Mechanical:
This refers to more pragmatic/ practical reasons for adopting an innovation. The adoption of fax machines is the generic example. i.e. You need to start using fax machine because your customers and suppliers are using it

Social Conformity:
The social pressure associated with being affiliated with a group of people. i.e. You need an iPhone so that you can take part in cool conversations about apps

Why it’s not quite so easyAnother caveat about thresholds is that they can only really be assessed post change. Every one of us has a different threshold for different actions and it is impossible to predict. The purchasing of the iPad would be different to changing your perception on using brothels for example.

What’s the point of this post?

However, when devising campaigns, understanding types of people and what kind of threshold they have is a good place to start. We could start by targeting those with naturally lower thresholds. This shouldn’t be anything new to you, there’s a better chance of early adopters talking about and using our shiny new thing, be it computer geeks or fitness freaks. They talk about it within their network and influence others. Eventually, those who usually do not adopt will be overwhelmed about how great the thing is and cave in. Unless it’s crap obviously.

There are also ways in which we could actually artificially lower people’s thresholds. For example, we have seen how Jonathan Brigden bought my friendship by deciding to purchase an Xbox360. There are a number of instances where PR could have affected his decision.

After turning to us for our feedback, Brigden could have researched his options online potentially via search or relevant trusted sites. Here seeding positive messaging (such as reviews) and appearing high on search engine results pages would be highly desirable.

We could also create the impression that either everyone already has or is buying an Xbox. This works on a number of levels. Firstly, it suggests that if the person does not adopt the innovation then he or she will not ‘fit in’ or he or she is the ‘wrong ‘un’. For me, our society’s predisposition to having a wash has the same effect – if you lot didn’t do it, neither would I.

Secondly, it also reduces the risk associated with purchasing any new product. When buying a new car you are always conscious of how well it will run, whether it will cost a lot of money to fix or whether the wheels will fall off. The human race is programmed to pay attention to other people’s decisions because it is usually more reliable than not doing so. If lots of people are buying a certain car model then there is a perceived reduce risk in purchasing the car.

We could also target specific audience with similar messages so that consumers think other people ‘like them’ or people they aspire to be like are also adopting the new trend. Let’s face it, everything you see on the catwalk and on telly is a bit weird, and for blokes, usually camp. But as soon as Jude Law wears a cardigan in his new film, it’s seen as perfectly acceptable, even asiprational to copy him. It’s the reason why PRs send out so much free shit to celebs.

You can also see how these points could be applied online. Bloggers regularly look to trend setters in various industries such as fashion and technology. If you create an event for example, targeted at a group of bloggers and leave a few out due to limited space, there’s a fair chance that those few left out will be @’ing you on Twitter or emailing you asking for their invite. This is partly due because they want free stuff but also because they do not want to be left out of ‘their’ community.

If anyone’s seen the film, The Social Network, they did something similar when looking at universities to target. One university already had its own social network, so they Facebook went and targeted every campus within a 10 mile radius (or something) knowing that they would bump into each other regularly and eventually all migrate to Facebook.

The idea of thresholds is incredibly simple, mathematical but obviously highly flawed if we ignore the various other influences in people’s decision making. However, we can also see how one’s social circles can have a huge impact on decisions and opinion forming.


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