When it comes to social media marketing, accruing more online friends doesn’t necessarily mean getting better results, new research suggests.
A study by University of Iowa researchers finds that social media users who have small numbers of friends might be more influential with their online network of acquaintances than those who have larger numbers of friends on the Web.
Specifically, researchers found that someone who communicates frequently to a smaller number of online acquaintances is a better target for businesses using social media marketing to sell their products or services, as opposed to someone who communicates less often with more friends.
Gary Russell, a professor of marketing at Iowa's Tippie College of Business who conducted the research, said people who email each other more frequently are closer, and thus more likely to influence each other and hold influence over others.
"We found that a person who has a large network but doesn't buy anything isn't important from a marketing perspective," Russell said in a prepared release. "A person at the fringe of a network but who buys a lot is more influential than someone at the center but who doesn't buy a lot."
Analysts expect the use of social media as a sales and marketing tool to only grow in the coming years. A report by consulting firm Booz & Co. earlier this year predicted that social commerce sales in the United States will jump from $1 billion this year to $14 billion by 2015 — but Russell said that won’t happen without a better social media business model.
Russell and Tippie doctoral student Sang Uk Jung kept that in mind as they studied the buying behaviors of players in an online multiuser game.
The game replicates the everyday activities of potential real-world customers — from making friends and creating social groups to buying items using real and virtual money — and consequently provides a rich database for studying transactions between people, Jung said.
When Russell and Jung studied one month's worth of buying behavior to find who had the most influence among their gaming network, they noticed the most important factor seemed to be frequency of communication with other network members, not the network’s size.
Using that information, Russell and Jung predicted future buying behavior that ended up being largely true.
Jung said he's planning another research project that will expand the study to more thoroughly test their results.