Dorothy Crenshaw October 24, 2014 | 11:03:18
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Why PR Should Rethink Social Influence

What if everything the PR industry believes about social influence is wrong? And that there’s no such thing as truly viral content?

That’s the case made by Duncan Watts, network-theory scientist for Microsoft Research, whose views are outlined in the book Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know The Answer.) His research challenges accepted thinking about “viral” memes propagated by so-called citizen influencers (like hipsters or alpha moms), as promoted by Malcolm Gladwell and others.

Watts spoke at the annual PR Council’s Critical Issues Forum, and his premise is a provocative one for professional communicators. The sessions explored the changing role of PR, and much of the content fell under the broader theme of Big Data vs. Big Intuition. The research isn’t terribly new, but given the size of his data samples and rigor of analysis, Watts’ conclusions are welcome.

There’s more to be explored online, but it basically goes like this. Watts and his team analyzed millions of Twitter posts and mapped social sharing for big events and memes. The social graphs didn’t look like the tree-and branch approach of classic social contagion theory. Instead, they resembled a burst, where clicks and retweets emanate from a single social “broadcast.”

What this means is that most “viral” happenings aren’t truly viral in the way we believe. In fact, Watts’ previous research has shown that those Williamsburg hipsters and soccer moms aren’t even particularly relevant when it comes to spreading a message or meme. Ordinary people can do just as well.

More importantly, Watts got the group thinking about all the events and memes that DON’T become viral. The vast majority that never take off and aren’t picked up by mainstream press. So-called viral events are easier to pinpoint after the fact than they are to predict in advance, and the successful ones are rarely duplicated. Hmmm. It just may be that PR and social mavens are reverse-engineering case studies to suit a successful outcome. And that truly “viral” events are simply accidents, difficult to create and impossible to duplicate.

So, are we all off the hook when clients ask for a viral video?  Yes and no. When we call something “viral,” what we really mean is that it’s simply “popular.” Most of us have long since realized that truly spontaneous memes are nearly impossible to engineer; for every Ice Bucket Challenge, there are tens of thousands of failed attempts at social contagion. When you crack open the most successful campaigns, they usually blend mass marketing and social media.

The good news is that even though lightning rarely strikes, Watts’ research actually gives us a roadmap to achieving the right mix of paid, earned, and owned content to achieve popularity. It also validates what most PR professionals have believed in our gut for a long time, which is the continuing the influence of traditional media – that’s right, the very media coverage that PR has helped generate for decades. So, maybe the battle between Big Data and Big Intuition is a false dichotomy. In our world, they can both win.

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