Facebook connection targeting: which friends are the best?

My friends aren’t all the same.   And neither are yours, I bet.   Same thing when it comes to social graph marketing:  some friends are better than others at inspiring friends to action.    The question is- which ones?

Right now, there’s a lot of interest in methods for effectively identifying ‘influencers’ based on identifiable characteristics, such as their connectivity in a social network.   The question isn’t a new one  – my gut feeling is that it is as old as human communal life.    However, what is new is that online social networks provide the means, motive and opportunity for understanding these effects at scale, and putting them to work.    Hence the interest.

I’ve written recently about the findings of a recent study by Wei, Jang, Adamic, de Araújo and Rehki that looked at social game invitations and outcomes in two popular Facebook games from LOLApps, Diva Life and Yazuka Lords.  The paper is called Diffusion dynamics of games on online social networks, and it was presented last year at the Usenix conference Workshop on Online Social Networks WOSN 10.   (If you want to read it directly,  there’s a .pdf  of it here. ).    The headline result was that players recruited via friends were more engaged, and played longer.

But there is a lot of tantalising information in the article about what type of invitation behaviour is the most successful.   Here are some of the key results from this part of the work:

  • people who have more friends invite more friends
  • the success rate for invitations decreases strongly as more invitations are sent
  • the success rate for invitations decreases strongly as the number of invitations sent in one batch rises, controlling for the total number of successful invitations made

Very clearly, there is a story to be told here about more selective invitations being more effective, when measured per invitation.    But there is more than one story that can be told about what this means in practice, for designers.

There are also lots of potentially interesting stories that didn’t make it into the paper.   For one thing – it’s not clear whether the success rate for invitations varies with the proportion of friends invited, as well as with their absolute number.    It seems likely that there would be a difference in outcomes between someone with 500 friends inviting 5 friends, someone with 50 friends inviting 5 friends, and someone with 5 friends inviting 5 friends.     Similarly, someone with 500 friends who invites 50 friends is quite a different type of fish from the person with 50 friends who invites 50 friends.     Why does it matter?   It matters because you’d expect the success rate to be different for these cases, and success rate, rather than the total amount of success, is increasingly important (for reasons I will explain later).

Before we mope too much about what we don’t know as a result of this work, here is something we do know:

  • 10% of users are responsible for 50% of successful invitations

Wow.   That’s pretty much all I can say about it.  Except maybe awesome (which, it should be noted, I said with an entirely straight face 😐 ).

We’re not told in the article whether these top performing ‘salespeople’ are more accurate, or more prolific – or both.  We don’t know what their success rate is.  And that’s a very important question.

Are the top 10% responsible for their fair share of unsuccessful invitations, or are they successful because they are so prolific it doesn’t matter if they are even averagely effective?    My guess – and it is purely that, a guess – is that numbers game at the moment is such that super-promiscuous inviters, who have lots of friends, and invite them indiscriminately, and repeatedly, give the highest absolute return in terms of new eyes on screens, despite being the least efficient.    Kind of like the person we have all met who is successful in making conquests  because he (or she) really doesn’t care about failures, only about successes.

Targeting all of a person’s friends will give the ‘best result’, in that it will give the highest number of responses  –  but this approach isn’t cost-free, for a number of reasons:

  • Opportunity cost.   In exposing someone to an offer they are not interested in, an opportunity is wasted.  This opportunity cost is in fact always partly borne by the initiator of the action – it’s just not always obvious.     (What if they could have sold the opportunity to someone who could make use of it?)
  • Annoyance.    In exposing someone to an offer they are not interested in, you might lose the ability to attract them, at a later time,  to an offer they are interested in.
  • Real direct cost.    It’s nice if you can get your users to do your marketing for you, but it’s increasingly the case that you need to get your shovel out and help, too.   When you pay to target your users’ friends, what are you getting for your money?   Do you want all of them, or just some of them?

As connection targeting increasingly becomes a paid-for service, all these types of costs, direct, indirect, and opportunity cost will come under increasing scrutiny.

Let’s look at the study’s results from the other end of the lens for a moment.  If you are like the people in the study (and odds are, you are, as there were millions of users involved), your best friends, from an invitation point of view – i.e. the ones who issue invitations that you are most likely to accept – come from friends who send relatively few invitations,  and send them incrementally, but persistently.     One interpretation of this finding is that these type of invitations are ones that result from friends using their own intelligence and applying it to the developer’s problem.     It may become more important to explicitly encourage this type of accuracy, and value-add, by the type of invitation which is made, and how it is monitored and managed.

What’s the take-away?    Unfortunately, you can’t simply grab the first result you run across, and ride off into the sunset with it whooping and hollering with joy.     You might end up riding in the wrong direction.   After all, the type of product that is being recommended has an influence how people behave when recommending it, as shown by Leskovec, Singh and Kleinberg in their 2006 paper, Patterns of Influence in a Recommendation Network.        And there are other things to think about too.

However, there is one moral that can be easily squeezed out of the results, which is that there is a lot to learn from asking the question.  You don’t ask, you don’t get applies to behavioural insights as well as to lots of other things in life.

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Social graph marketing: I like my friends. But am I like them?

Subaru Six Stars

Image by istargazer via Flickr

According to Facebook’s VP of Partnerships and Platform Marketing, Dan Rose, Facebook’s work with Nielsen shows that social network seeing your friends’ pictures next to a Facebook advertisement leads to “a 60% uptake in brand advertising value” .   I’m not exactly sure what “uptake in brand value” is – and I wasn’t at DLD11, where he made that remark – but the core phenomenon that Rose was talking about isn’t news.   There’s already an aphorism for it dating back, apparently,  to the 1500’s:   Birds of a feather flock together.     (See also, opposites attract…;- )  

The marketing bods version of the ‘birds of a feather’ hypothesis runs something like this:  

People tend to like, and be friends with, people who are similar to them.   People who are similar to each other are similar in many ways, including having similar tastes.    Therefore, your friends are a good source of information about things you might like, not, as you might think, because of what they know about you, but purely because of what they themselves like.     Similarly, knowing what you like is a good predictor of what your friends like – not because you know them well and are sensitive to their needs, but simply because they are your friends, and therefore likely to be similar to you. 

Whatever forces at work here, they are by no means all-powerful.  We have, I am sure,  all given and received presents which are much better barometers of  the giver’s likes than those of the recipient.    I will spare you the details but I recently received a Christmas present that drove this point home to me very strongly.   

But an effect need not be infallible in order to be invaluable.    Do Facebook friends share attributes and preferences, more than you’d expect by chance?  Or more then you’d expect if you knew, say,  basic demographic and psychographic information, but didn’t know ”friend” status? 

To use yet another dodgy hair dye analogy, only Facebook knows for sure.   Facebook, with its knowledge of  its users’ friends, and its knowledge of users’ declared likes, offers a platform which seems tailor-made for exploring the strength, nature, and limits of personal network effects on preferences.   Facebook’s daily operations offer the potential for a large-scale real-time research playground programme of staggering scope and detail.    

Our tendency to be like our friends and our life partners in some ways is a well-documented phenomenon (pop “homophily”, or “assortative mixing”  or “assortative matching” into a search engine if you’d like a quick dip in the surf).   So is the fact that we tend to meet and interact with and become friends with people who are physically close to us.  (Newcombe’s study of this phenomenon in the 1960s seems to have largely held up over time.)    However,  people who are physically close to us may also have been effectively pre-sorted by the universe to  share some of the demographic characteristics important for matching.    So it’s a case of  “not only but also”.

Of course, we do not befriend everyone we have the opportunity to see and interact with frequently.    We can all think of examples, I’m sure, of people we see and interact with every day, who are not  currently  friends, and are unlikely to ever become friends.   No need to name names.   So propinquity, as proximity is sometimes called, is not the whole story.    And neither, of course,  is similarity.

Sit back and think for a moment.  Are you really like your friends?    And is that why you like them?   The answer, probably, is: yes, partly,  in some ways, and no, not always,  in others.   (Ah, the chill wind of common sense.)     Knowing when  friends are likely to be similar to each other in their tastes – and when they aren’t – could be very useful.    Ditto, some knowledge of how strong this effect is, in comparison to other predictive possibilities, helps us to think wisely about what it’s good for, and what it’s not.     But we don’t really know these things in a systematic way – yet.   There are lots of unexplored possibilities in this type of analysis, as well as a large and interesting set of relevant findings from marketing and sociology.  I hope to investigate these issues further in future posts.  For now, let’s just have a little chew on one example. 

I am a Subaru owner.  I believe that I caught this from my sister, who is a happy owner, having done a gruelling daily commute with hers for the last 10 Montreal winters.   I believe that I also passed the Scooby virus on to a friend, who just bought one partly on the strength of my sister’s happiness, and mine.   Contagiousness is highly visible in Subaru-ownership, because of its rarity.    If I bought a Ford, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to trace it back to any particular influence.    But being a Subaru-owner is a niche pleasure, particularly in the UK.    According to one source, only 0.3% of UK new car registrations in December 2010 were Subarus.    

Nonetheless, Subaru is gaining market share.   How?   According to a motor industry guru quoted in a recent Businessweek article,  “They are basically adding people who are Subaru buyers in their hearts, but don’t know it.”    Interesting… 

Although I am a happy Scooby owner, particularly when it is snowing, as it is at this very minute, I am not currently in the market for another Subaru.    (Just as I am Cohen-ed out at present.)    So there isn’t much point marketing Subarus to me.     

But what about my Facebook friends?   They are probably somewhat similar to me, in some ways, as they are my friends.  But they are definitely not similar to me in the sense that none of them own Subarus.  (The gal who bought a Subaru isn’t on Facebook. )  This is pretty much what you would expect, given the rarity of Subaru ownership and the small number of Facebook friends I have.   Even if being my Facebook friend increased your chances of owning a Subaru tenfold, the size of my Friend pool simply isn’t big enough to demonstrate this effect conclusively.

But the interesting question, for Subaru (as well as others),  is whether my Facebook friends more susceptible to Subarus, because they are my friends.  That is to say, are they more susceptible than random people, or than people of similar demographic, psychographic (etc).   

Could my Facebook friends be, as the industry guru put it:  “Subaru buyers at heart, but not know it yet”?   

I don’t know for sure, but my gut feel is some of them are.    That’s certainly the Great Hope of friendship marketing.   It’s possible that Facebook is, even now, figuring out the answer.   Whether friend testimonials work because of some underlying similarity between me and my friends, or because of the trust my friends have in my procurement capabilities, is very much an open question.   But an answerable one.

Similarly, Facebook is undoubtedly working hard on the question of what good my openly declared relationship with Leonard Cohen is as a predictor of my many other susceptibilities.     I’m sure that when they figure it out, they’ll tell me.   (Meanwhile, I’m open to suggestions.)

Why Leonard Cohen is like my dishwasher

Miele dishwasher with magic extra tray

Image by manarh via Flickr

I have already confessed, via Facebook, that I like Leonard Cohen.   Has the world changed as a result?  In some ways it has.  Leonard Cohen (in his corporate incarnation) has started to “reach out” to me via my Facebook news stream.   That’s nice for both of us.   But it has its limitations.      

For one thing, as a consumer my desire for Leonard Cohen is currently in a state of satiation.     There are probably sound evolutionary reasons for this.     After a really big Cohen-out the healthy option is to consume something not quite so doomy.   

Leonard Cohen is, in some ways, like my new dishwasher.   Not that my new  dishwasher is in any way doomy.   It is polite and cheerful (in a low-key kind of way).   But, having  just bought a very nice dishwasher, which I hope will live a long and productive life, my readiness for buying another dishwasher is now at an all-time life-time ebb.    I am probably somewhat receptive to buying another different but similar type of appliance from the same manufacturer, should the need arise.    But I really do not want another dishwasher.   Same goes for Leonard Cohen.  My need for another product of the same type from the same manufacturer won’t re-assert itself any time soon.

So, although it would seem reasonable, as a first pass, that the similarity between two objects of my consumer lust would be a really great rule to use when cross-marketing to me, it ain’t necessarily so.  After all, what is more similar to Leonard Cohen than Leonard Cohen?   I do like Leonard Cohen, but I don’t want any right now.   Not even if he comes with fries.

What’s the moral?  Basically, it’s that all gets quite complicated when you look at things as they really are.    (The winners of the Netflix Prize have already figured this out.)       

There are other factors  about the situation that can be much more powerful influences on my consumer preferences and behaviour than simple similarity.     Drive strength varies with satiation.   Sometimes what you need is a complement (or an antidote…), not a substitute.    Semantic distance may be best assessed not with a simple scalar metric, but by identifying which attributes or dimensions are relevant for the comparison, given the context.      

So, even Leonard Cohen isn’t always a perfect predictor of Leonard Cohen.   But maybe he can sell me and my friends something else.