THURSDAY, June 21 (HealthDay News) -- A new study of Facebook provides possible hints as to the identity of people who get listened to the most when voicing opinions or pitching products and who's most likely to do the listening.
The value of the research is limited since it only looks at one product. Still, the study suggests that men are major influencers, while younger users and married people are the least susceptible to suggestion.
The researchers sought to figure out who influences whom by tracking 1.3 million Facebook users. Specifically, they followed 7,730 users who tried out an application that allowed them to rate movies and actors, among other Hollywood-related subjects.
Whenever a user rated something, Facebook randomly sent messages to that user's Facebook friends disclosing the rating and including information about the application.
The researchers were able to track who had the most success when it came to convincing others to try the application and who was most likely to be convinced. However, not many people seemed interested in the application: The notifications went out to almost 42,000 Facebook friends, but only 976 actually tried it out.
Among the findings: Women have more influence on men than other women, and people 30 and older are more influential than younger people.
Study lead author Sinan Aral -- who has been working with Facebook -- cautioned that the research only looked at the one product. It will take more study to gain a wider picture.
The ultimate plan is to figure out how to best determine which people should get pitches, said Aral, an assistant professor of information, operations and management science at New York University.
"These types of targeted advertising will be based on whether you're a likely candidate to be influential considering the type of product," Aral said. "The idea is to make sure that people get the messages that they are most interested in and less spammy interactions."
This kind of ultra-focused targeting will make some people nervous. But Aral said its potential surpasses products and might be used, for example, to help boost awareness about health campaigns or politics.
What could advertisers of computer applications do with information from this kind of study?
"You'll want to use estimates from our methods to find people who are more influential, who have friends who are susceptible, and have a low spontaneous likelihood of adopting the program on their own," Aral said. That way, advertisers won't waste money trying to reach influential people who don't need coaxing to try a product.
Tanya Rosenblat, an associate professor of economics at Iowa State University who studies social networks, cautioned that there's a major question regarding how to interpret the results. If someone hears that a Facebook friend uses the application and then tries it herself, is she being influenced or simply imitating the other person? "For example, if you find out that your best friend invests in AT&T stock, you might want to imitate her because she is a good investor. But this is a form of social learning rather than persuasion."
This sort of influencing of the influencers could spell trouble, Rosenblat said. "Since influential people tend to be less susceptible, it's likely that we overweigh their opinions compared to the opinions of others. Say a company tries to influence a population by influencing the influencers: This might be a way to swing public opinion."
The study was published online June 21 in the journal Science.
The American Psychological Association has more on social networking.
SOURCES: Sinan Aral, Ph.D., assistant professor, information, operations and management science, New York University Stern School of Business, New York City; Tanya S. Rosenblat, Ph.D., associate professor, economics, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa; June 21, 2012, Science, online
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