Effective content marketing requires us to walk a very thin wire. It challenges us to create things that have the potential for virility while still enabling us to convey a message and hopefully incite action from our audience.
As marketers, it’s important that we investigate and work to understand the nuanced and somewhat counter-intuitive ways that information propagates through social networks. We need to be especially cognizant of how our message resonates with audiences (the context of our content), but we also need to consider the potential for those ideas to spread among social groups. Just as importantly, we need to consider where our content begins; the way we seed content plays a crucial role in how that content spreads.
In this post, I’ll examine some of the theory that describes how ideas and content travel via social communities. These insights can be used not only for better, more viral, and more impactful content ideas, but also to help create strategies for content promotion that work.
Content spreads through weak ties
In order to understand how ideas spread, you need to understand the types of relationships that occur in social networks. These interpersonal ties form the foundation of the social networks we rely on as marketers.
In a nutshell, there are three types of interpersonal ties:
1. Strong Ties. We can be strongly tied to others, meaning we’re invested in these individuals lives, and generally spend a good amount of time together.
2. Weak Ties. Typically, we have weak ties with individuals that are not a part of our immediate social group. We know them and interact with them occasionally, but don’t necessarily have a lot in common with them or find ourselves heavily invested in their lives.
3. Absent Ties. The third type interpersonal ties that exist are absent ties, which include people we may interact with, but have no relationship with (such as a clerk at the grocery store).
One important facet of strongly tied interpersonal relationships is the similarity between strongly tied individuals. Strong tie relationships are often formed between like-minded people who are on similar life paths or trajectories. Strongly tied individuals also tend to be well connected within each others’ closest interpersonal networks.
Strong interpersonal ties tend to create insular, tightly knit networks. Within these networks, ideas can spread quickly and are often repeated. These networks are echo chambers for ideas. As a result, the connections between closely tied individuals don’t form the bridges required to make ideas spread to great lengths, or among distinct social communities.
And so, it becomes the weak ties that we rely on for the spread of ideas. Weak ties form bridges between disparate networks of closely tied individuals. These bridges are the only connections that allow information to move from community to community.
Understanding this in the context of content marketing is important because it gives us a target. If our goal is to have our ideas spread as far as possible, we can work to craft content that will resonate within a variety of closely knit communities, but is also likely to have enough widespread appeal and personal relevance across personality types that it can also travel the bridges that connect individual communities.
Are you yelling into an echo chamber?
Finding ideas for great content is the first, but often most challenging, aspect of content marketing. Ideas that find the most success are the ones that have the ability to resonate within like-minded communities, but which also have the potential to carry unique or individualized meaning among a variety of types of people.
The goal is to find ideas that can strongly resonate within the echo chamber of closely tied communities, but that have the flexibility to traverse the bridges formed by individual weak ties, and then resonate within adjacent social communities from an alternative vantage point.
As marketers, it’s our job to walk a tightrope during the ideation process. We want our content to have a message, and to speak to the right types of audiences, but we also want it to be multi-faceted and relatable to a variety of different types of people.
One excellent way to accomplish this goal is to generate ideas that have “combined relevance,” a term coined by Dan Zarella of Hubspot. By combining two or more ideas, you increase the potential for your idea to bridge the gap between weakly-tied networks.
Our friends at CopyBlogger understand combined relevance extremely well, and have used it to their benefit to create incredibly popular content. For example, The Eminem Guide to Becoming a Writing and Marketing Machine is likely to appeal to a number of individuals across a variety of social groups. This example has the potential to be personally relevant for any writers or marketers, but also is much more likely to bridge the gap to alternative and tangentially related communities because of the personal relevance it creates for individuals based on the reference to music and pop culture.
Another genius at creating combine relevance is Matt Inman, also known as “The Oatmeal.” Matt’s specialty is combining things that the Internet community loves in humorous ways. The result has been some of the most viral and highly shared content that exists. This comic, for instance, utilizes the strategy many Internet meme’s use to achieve virility — the content’s message is re-envisioned from a wide variety of angles, each angle designed to appeal to certain type of person or audience.
Another interesting facet of interpersonal theory regarding weak ties is the way it informs our strategy for content promotion and outreach. Since ideas spread through the bridges created by weak ties, individuals with few weak ties are much less likely to be exposed to new information or new ideas. Conversely, individuals with many weak ties are highly likely to be exposed to a wider variety of ideas.
Of course, this leads to a similar, but much more important conclusion: individuals with many weak ties are also much more likely to be conduits for the spread of information outward, to other social networks. As marketers, we can extrapolate this lesson and apply it, anthropomorphically, to websites. If our goal is the widespread sharing of our content, we should seek to seed that content on websites that are weakly tied to a very wide variety of related networks.
If we expect to see very wide adoption of our content, we should target websites that have very large audiences, but that also form bridging connections with a wide variety of tangentially related, though still relevant, communities. From a strategic perspective, if our goal is exposure, we would seek out websites that are less highly specialized, less niche, and less likely to be operating inside an echo chamber of closely tied relationships.
If your objective is to see your content spread as far as possible, find a place to seed your content that appeals to the widest applicable demographic or set of demographics. Find a place people deliberately visit because they want to be exposed to new ideas.
Probably the best example of this type of website was Digg.com. Digg was one of the most powerful ways to seed content. Hitting the home page was astronomically powerful because Digg was truly a hub for information, ideas and content to be disseminated. Digg was read by all types of bloggers from a huge variety of verticals. It was also a place people went to for ideas and inspiration to blog about.
Using weak ties to understand where ideas originate
It’s not uncommon to believe that most great ideas come from the core, most well-known individuals within interpersonal communities. After all, if an individual has risen to prominence, it’s easy to assume they will continue to be a source for inspiration and innovation. This is especially easy to assume in scientific communities or academia.
The truth, however, is that most innovation comes from the periphery of social networks, traveling the bridge created by weak ties to permeate closely knit networks. In the echo chamber of closely tied networks, the status quo is much more likely to take root.
We this phenomenon as groupthink. It arises when group harmony becomes paramount to new or even controversial ideas. Individuals strive to find solutions that are agreeable to the group as a whole, as opposed to arriving at conclusions that may be more effective but have less overall consensus.
As a result, it’s often more likely that innovative ideas will come to the group from the outside, from the outliers who are not susceptible or influenced by groupthink (more on this here). What’s interesting is that this fact is often concealed. We don’t see it because the weakly tied outliers that generate great ideas often begin to form strong bonds with the communities that adopt their point of view, and so they become insulated.
This lesson teaches us the value of loosely tied, free-thinking communicators — individuals that march to the beat of their own drum, people who are intrinsically motivated to be the earliest adopters, the experimenters, and the innovators who are not afraid of judgement. These are the kinds of people with a lot of power to spread content or ideas.
Avoid group think. If you’re the underdog in your niche or vertical, remember that this could be a potential advantage. Anyone who can afford to innovate and disrupt the status quo is in a position of power.
Even if you’re already a primary thought leader, keep in mind that new ideas are the key to maintaining your position. By avoiding the temptation to yell into the echo chamber, or keep peace by falling victim to groupthink, you can hedge your position by remaining consistently relevant.
Why strong ties also matter
The goal with content marketing isn’t quite as simple as achieving the most exposure possible. Although there are instances where overall reach or brand exposure may be the primary goal, we also often have goals related to influencing our audiences. With this in mind, we should also always consider the ability of our ideas to resonate within tightly knit communities and between strong ties.
“Weak ties provide the bridges over which innovations cross the boundaries of social groups; the decision making, however, is influenced mainly by the strong-ties network in each group.”
- Gabriel Weimann, University of Haifa, Israel
As we’ve learned, weak ties are essential for the spread of information, but it is through the strong ties of influential interpersonal relationships that lead to action. This is the primary reason that the best content should be able to find meaning within a variety of contexts. Combined relevance is a strategy for doing this, so is the personalization of content. Virtual social communities and the sharing of personal data and preferences offer an incredible opportunity for marketers to create content that can resonate very personally with almost anybody.
Be strategic and consider the paths you can take when creating and promoting content…
- Remember that content cannot spread if it stops being introduced to new communities. Find ways to make content personally relevant to a variety of audiences. Use techniques like content personalization and combined relevance to make content “more viral.”
- Seed content within hubs that not only have a large audience, but that also reach a wide variety of relevant, tightly knit communities.
- Don’t be afraid of content that’s outside the norm or that challenges groupthink. This is the primary advantage of the underdog or newcomer.
- Your content still needs to strike a chord within the minds of the people who consume it (in a way that’s valuable to your business). Ultimately, decision making is influenced by strong ties.
How do you create content that a variety of audiences will find meaningful? What are your favorite examples of “combined relevance? Let us know in the comments below.