The Weak Shall Inherit the Market

Stanford sociology professor Mark Granovetter is known for his groundbreaking work in social network theory, particularly his1973 theory on the spread of information  in social networks known as The Strength of Weak Ties published by the American Journal of Sociology (vol 78, issue 6). He showed – quite counter-intuitively – that in a social network, the weakest ties are the most powerful in terms of disseminating information.

What does this mean, and what key learnings can be applied to your marketing efforts?

Weak Links Start the Spread

Here’s how weak links disseminate information. It all begins with the weak links between a first adopter and several early adopters.

  • The first adopters or innovators – are marginal and isolated, with very small social networks. Their relationships are one-to-one or “bridge” relationships with people who are part of groups at arm’s length – a “weak tie”.
  • The early adopters travel close behind them.
  • A weak link between the first adopter and the early adopter spreads an idea across a social network. 
  • The most effective first adopters have a number of bridges between themselves and other networks. 

The information being passed in this way through numerous weak ties rather than a few strong ties reaches a larger number of people and traverses greater social distance.

Weak Ties Drive Action 
A study of job seekers indicates that 80% of the time, finding a new role comes not through the strong ties (who you might have a vested interest in their friends’ success), but through the extended network of weak ties. The network of weak ties is more likely to activate a request than someone closer. A motivating factor may be a desire to grow that weak tie into something more substantial. The significance of this to marketing is that, as studies have shown, people rarely act on mass-media information unless it is also transmitted through personal ties.

The Community is Reliant on Weak Ties 

Communities exhibit a strong need for “marginalisation” (innovators/weak ties.)  The analysis and testing of the study show that without these marginal/weak tie first adopters, the community has no possibility for organisation or regeneration. “Strong ties, breeding local cohesion, lead to overall fragmentation.”  In other words, without new ideas, groups end up talking about the same thing over and over again, which results in weakening the group.

Social Network Dynamics

Shiv Singh’s post at Boxes and Arrows discusses the structure and dynamics of networks, highlighting research from mathematician Linton C. Freeman who also wrote influential articles well before the Internet was a factor as well as research by  Kumar, Novak and Tomkins (2006). The research analyzes the fact that networks are composed of subgroups.

Explanatory research conducted by Kumar, Novak and Tomkins compared two online social networks, Flickr and Yahoo 360, which together had more than five million users. They observed a standard pattern of growth: rapid early growth followed a period of decline and then more slow but steady growth.  They identified three main types of network activity:

  1. Singletons” have no connections and are least central.
  2.  “The giant component is the largest group of nodes tightly connected to the central nodes and to each other.
  3. “The middle region” is isolated groups that interact among themselves but not with the rest of the network, forming isolated stars. These groups grow one user at a time and over time merge with the giant component.

Linton Freeman’s1979  article on centrality in social networks explored differences in point centralities based on 1. degree of a point, 2. control and  3. independence.

    1. Degree of a point

refers to the number of nodes connected to a given node, in other words, the number of friends you have in a social network. The more friends, the more important you are.

  1. Control refers to the extent to which nodes depend on one specific node to communicate with other nodes. If hundreds of friends are connected to each other only when you serve as the bridge connecting them, then your centrality is high, and you are the node that controls the communication flows.
  2. Independence means that a node is minimally dependent on any single node and not subject to control. This means you can reach the maximum number of people through the shortest number of links, without being dependent on a particular few nodes.

Implications for Social Network Marketing

1. Create Conditions for Sub-networks To Flourish

A key implication for designing a social network is that most of the network will be outside the giant component – social networks are actually thousands of sub-networks. Therefore, more mechanisms that you provide for those sub-networks to flourish, greater the overall network growth. “Social networks are fundamentally virtual ghettos. Networks like Facebook that encourage ghettos grow the most. ”

2. Most Growth Happens in the Middle Region

The middle region consists of isolated groups that interact among themselves but not with the rest of the network. This is where dynamic members influence others to join their network. These sub-networks can gradually join the giant component over time. Once they do, the importance of the dynamic member diminishes, and even if that dynamic member leaves the network, the others stay. Most online social networks grow based on the initiative of early adopters who transfer their offline networks online and serve as “stars.”

3. Networks Depend on Other Networks 

Another group of researchers (Cai et al., 2006)  showed that each node belongs to several different social networks, with the other networks affecting the group formation patterns, evolution and information sharing on the social network. This means that a network can’t be analyzed independently and should be studied in the context of other networks. It may also influence whether a node leaves a network based on the activity of nodes on its other networks. This raises an important question for practitioners: Do you know how much of the activity on your social network is influenced by activity on other social networks?


While we struggle to understand the dynamics of networks, we must recognize the importance of weak ties in dissemination of our ideas. Given the complex array of networks and their interactions, it appears that there are two ways to approach this in marketing:

1. Create Content: We need to create content with broad enough appeal and put it out there where it can go viral.

2. Create a Context: In our forays into social media, we need to recognize that attempts to tightly control a social network will not lead to dynamic growth. We need to create spaces for isolated groups to interact among themselves, creating the conditions for these groups to merge over time merge with the giant component.  The purpose of social media network is not to control the conversation, but to encourage meaningful peer conversation in which our brand is a part, spreading awareness and favorability.

Snap principle of weak ties:

Focus on creating Content and Contexts for interaction.