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Degrees of Separation and Social Media Advertising

Over spring break, I had lunch with some of my long-standing friends from high school. It was a pretty familiar setting, although one thing was different. My mom had decided to join us since she was in the area. After being introduced to some new faces, my mom began conversing with one of my friends. At the time, he was just a friend from high school, but then as their conversation went on our relationship began to change. It turns out, that my friend’s family were good friends with one of my dad’s best friends from high school, and although I had met this friend through school, we would end up being connected in more ways than one.

Now you can probably draw some conclusions from this, such as all people from New York City being connected in some way, or even more closely you can say that all Chinese people from New York City are closely connected through various social networks. This calls on the idea of degrees of separation, where human society as a whole is pretty closely knit. An article written about Facebook before the popular social media site went public went on to say that all people are linked by 4.74 degrees of separation on average and 4.37 in the US. This phenomenon is caused by the large number of weak ties that people are engaged in on average.

When I first happened upon this article several years ago, I thought that it was novel, but it wasn’t very useful or interesting to me. For instance, I have many people even in my direct network on Facebook that I would rarely talk to, and barely associate with. After my experience at lunch though, I began to think about the information presented in a different way. It wasn’t the people that were 4.74 degrees of separation apart that were interesting. Rather, the people who were directly connected or at most 1 degree apart were the ones who interested me. After finding out that my friend’s family had extended ties to my family, I began to think that what was most impressive about our society is the scope of the people whom we have weak ties with and the potentially strong influence that we might have in their lives.

One line that stuck out to me from the Facebook article was a quote by Cornell professor Jon Kleinberg: “News spreads well on weak ties. Those people I met on vacation, if they send me some cool news, I might send that to my friends. If they send me something about a protest movement, I might not.” To me, this quote immediately raised the prospects of social media advertising. Advertising is, at the core, the dissemination of information: about a specific brand, a product, a type of product, or even for a cause. A more recent study done by Vizu, a Nielsen company shows that social media advertising is on the rise in 2013, and that a large portion of the companies that use social media advertising were doing it as a branding tool. Another article about Facebook advertising reports that click through rates on page advertisements have shown significant improvement over the traditional advertisements shown on Facebook. In my mind, this is still a somewhat lacking approach.

In my opinion, few companies still employ the most dynamic aspect of social media advertising: having people that you know tell you about brands or products that they are interested in. At the moment, many advertisements still feel like it’s the company that is trying to sell you the brand or the product. If everyone has such a large pool of people whom they are directly connected to and largely influential in, why are all of the companies still acting as the primary party of advertisement? One of the most successful advertisements that I have seen so far was done by Samsung for their new Galaxy S4 phone. They ran a promotion, where you must like their webpage and share a photo of their new phone for a chance to win one. In my mind, such advertising campaigns really capture the heart of the advantages of using social media. I saw many of my friends posting this picture, and as a result I was exposed to it without really seeking it out myself. In addition, since it was my friends rather than the marketing heads at Samsung who showed me a picture of this phone, I would be more receptive to it.

I think that there is still a lot of research that can be done on how to fully tap into the nearest connections that people have, and how to use those networks to your advantage. Sure it’s interesting that I can be somehow connected to some random baker in France, but I would rather engage with the people who are closest to me in my life.




4 Responses to “ Degrees of Separation and Social Media Advertising ”


    I agree that there’ s a lot more which can be done in social media advertising. The “like and share for a chance to win” approach is certainly more interesting than the traditional approach of just showing people products. I notice that Amazon in particular has run successful Facebook campaigns this way. One drawback is that it requires effort from users. An approach that does not require effort from users is something that Facebook was sued for recently: using people’s names and photos in ads without their permission. Facebook used to have advertisements that said, for example, that “John S. likes Walmart” although John did not agree to this ad being shown to you. The case was settled with Facebook paying $20 million. Obviously, when you want individuals to endorse your products to people they know, there is a balance that must be struck between requiring an effort from users and respecting their privacy.

  • Mandita

    I agree that Facebook users are more annoyed by advertisements sent by a group or organization. I came across an article a little while ago about political campaigns and how the candidates go about advertising. Apparently how many Facebook friends you have is a major variable because 85% of Americans are annoyed by political ads on Facebook, but will read their friend’s posts about politics with enthusiasm. Other major variables for campaign advertisements are gender, if you have children, amount of news one reads online, and voting history. The variable that seemed most relevant to me was if a person has children, because then there is the undeniable influence a parent has within their children’s lives which will have long reaching effects. Another interesting connection was the amount of news a person reads, because that means they are more informed about the information and will be more likely to spread their opinions. Their value system for advertisements is less on the traditional per click basis but on a per vote basis which is directly correlated to the connections people share with each other.


    It’s very interesting to see how Facebook captured the idea of networks to target ads at it’s users. Personally, I would definitely consider looking at ads that my friends would recommend on Facebook as I know that they understand my interests and needs. But recently Facebook announced their partnership with four data companies that track, to varying degrees, online and offline purchase behavior to show highly targeted advertisements to its users. These data companies aggregate information about which items and brands a consumer buys through sources like loyalty cards. They obscure users identifying information such as email addresses and phone numbers through a software and Facebook can combine it’s database with these data companies to target ads at its users by tracking their offline purchases. Again as mentioned in the previous comments it would definitely lead to privacy issues and users may be annoyed to know that they are being tracked on every single purchase that they make.
    It will be challenging for Facebook to address such privacy concerns of its users and at the same time improve their targeted social marketing.


    There was recently a research study conducted on how someone’s “Likes” can reveal a lot about them beyond just what they liked on Facebook. The research process is outlined here:

    For example, one of the conclusions the article stated was: The study notes that Likes that are the “best predictors of high intelligence include ‘Thunderstorms,’ The Colbert Report, ‘Science” and ‘Curly Fries.’ Low intelligence was indicated by liking (Facebook pages for) ‘Sephora,’ ‘I Love Being A Mom,’ ‘Harley Davidson’ and ‘Lady Antebellum.’

    The point you raised was interesting to me and relates to this article in that perhaps there is some way of leveraging the data for companies to advertise based on other various conclusions that were drawn, so that they are targeting consumers who would actually be interested in their products to be more effective.

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