Influence and marketing (1)

Birds of a feather

Human beings are not perfect, and one of the many defects we have is that we confuse correlation and causation. I would like to talk about how it affects Social Influence and then about some of the consequences it can have in marketing.


Influence is when one person is affected by others in an emotional, rational or behavioral manner. Let’s take for example someone famous on TV, a Rockstar or a politician. We know that these people’s actions can have a big impact on the rest of the population. A president’s speech for instance can change the course of a whole country, go to war or achieve a peaceful resolution to a conflict.


But social influence isn’t caused only by big names. We’ve all got a friend who has persuaded us to go with him to a concert, to an opening, or to buy a product we did not even knew it existed. Social influence is also present in these cases where the average guy can influence someone else. If we add social networks to the equation the power of influence can be even higher than we sometimes think.


However, what if the impact of social influence was not that high, or at least not always that high? what if we are overestimating the real impact of social influence? Chances are we do.


One of the main reason is that social influence is really hard to measure and separate from all the other psychosocial possible explanations. It is hard to understand that Influence is not the only explanation for a mass behavior, but it is the most frequently used when we don’t know exactly what happens; it’s the easy answer.  When you see a group of people doing the same thing, wearing similar clothes or with the same gestures you may be tempted to think they are influenced by someone, like if there was someone who created the trends inside that group.


Another possible explanation is a social phenomenon called “homophily“. It is a natural tendency to bond with similar others. It can explain for example why our friends tend to be so alike in thoughts or education. Think about the expression Birds of a feather flock together.  Our preferences and behaviors are correlated with our friends’.  We watch the same shows, eat at the same places and act in a similar way.


There are two kinds of “homophily”, status homophily and value homophily. The “status” variant refers to individuals being in contact with others of their same social status by a matter of chance, because they live in the same area, go to similar schools, bars or clubs. The “value” variant refers to the tendency to associate with others who think the same way, regardless of status.


We see that that correlation does not imply causation. Being in the same group, acting in a similar way and buying the same products does not imply that it is because we are socially influenced by one another.


I will continue on the next post about how all this can affect marketing campaigns, sales and offer us a new way of thinking.

[Update: read here the second part of influence and marketing]

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