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.)