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September 16, 2010

Social networks are more than clusters of friends. A recent Economist article details how they’re increasingly being analyzed to understand everything from counterterrorism to branding. One thing that social networks reveal is the value of certain individuals in a specific field, and therefore those whom it is most effective to target. Often it’s not who you’d expect. In telecoms, thriftier customers are actually more valuable because they are “influencers” within their network. Though they themselves don’t spend the most, their power of persuasion within their surroundings, and therefore their social currency, is highest. Similarly intelligence agencies find that key terrorists to target are often not the leaders but the people at the lower-levels, such as drivers and guides, because of their extreme connectedness to the group at large. Police can now quickly identify a hot spot for crime by monitoring messages about party plans on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

The next step, already well under way, is the analysis of social networks to map larger movements within society. Hot-off-the press findings show exactly this to predict epidemics – whether a spread of an idea (ie Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point) or an actual medical virus:

The implications are huge. Firstly, in the case of analyses of online networks, it shows just how integral they are to daily life if they can lead to such accurate analyses. And while online social networks become more sophisticated, so will the results of their analysis. Secondly, social networks can be applied to any kind of trend, idea, or movement. So where epidemics can now be detected earlier than ever before, the same is true for social trends, political movements, or terrorist activity. Will brands in the future be able to therefore harness trends before they’ve even begun? And with “influencers” having the greatest value, shouldn’t brands also more integrally develop personal relationships with the “influencers” in their consumer networks? Old Spice’s personalized YouTube videos earlier this year did exactly that; will this become the predominant model for advertising?

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