The Three Degrees of Influence Rule

by Gregg on September 30, 2009

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The book that I’ve been immersed in of late, Connected, talks in one part about the Six Degree of Separation Rule as postulated by Stanley Milgram. I expect that everyone is familiar with that by now. If not, it’s just a quick Google away. After setting the stage with that discussion they move on and present their Three Degree of Influence Rule. Here’s part of what they say. “However, just because we are connected to everyone else by six degrees of separation does not mean that we hold sway over all of these people at any social distance away from us. Our own research has shown that the spread of influence in social networks obeys what we call The Three Degrees of Influence Rule. Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (one degree), our friends’ friends (two degrees), and our friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees). Our influence gradually dissipates and ceases to have a noticeable effect on people beyond the social frontier that lies at three degrees of separation. Likewise, we are influenced by friends within three degrees but generally not by those beyond.”

“And word-of-mouth recommendations for everyday concerns tend to spread three degrees too.”

So, what are the implications of this for companies and marketers in a social media, new media, web 2.0 kind of world? How does this affect the gospel that is word of mouth marketing? Can it give us any insights into viral marketing? New influencers? What about recommendations and reviews by our peers? How are those impacted by this rule?

We probably also need to ask if this rule still applies given the seemingly breakneck speed of social technologies. Has the time that has elapsed since their studies were undertaken eroded the rule at all? Do the social tools we have at our disposal today have an impact on the rule? Mitch Joel has suggested that the Six Degree rule is now the Six Pixel rule and he makes a compelling case for that. If that’s the case, could the forces responsible for that also have some bearing on the three degree rule? And I guess that we should likely keep in mind that these are rules, not laws.

Is there some marketing wisdom to be gleaned from the three rules? If companies and marketers were to pay heed to this rule, it would seem that there are two distinct courses that could be undertaken in a word of mouth campaign. The first would be to find people who have the biggest network of “friends” since they would seemingly have the greatest impact at three degrees out. Home run ball in baseball terms. The second would be to cast a wide net and rely on getting word out that way. Small ball in that same baseball terminology.

What this does call into question though is the prevailing notion of word of mouth that we’ve all seen rendered on power point presentation slides. The ones that show one person telling two and two telling ten and ten telling one hundred and before you know it, Carl Sagan has come back from the dead, and you have “billions and billions” of word of mouth fans. That sure looks good on all of those slides but maybe that’s not really how it works. Could it be that this rule points to a quality not a quantity issue? Quantity would seem to point towards “eyeballs” in marketing and advertising vernacular. Would the quality part point towards relationship, loyalty, conversion and repeat sales?

Lastly, how could we explain the occasional viral nature of our social networks in light of this rule? Let’s face it, it would seem that every company and marketer’s dream in this new media world is for something to go viral. And I haven’t talked with anyone yet who wouldn’t love to know the secret sauce that makes that happen. Is there an ingredient or two to be found in the Three Degree Rue?

What do you think? Does the Three Degree Rule sound reasonable to you? Would it make you rethink how you market to social networks?