Research Focuses on Unseen Online Ties

Companies and universities are stepping up research to determine how online users connect with each other - outside of the obvious linkages on social networks.

These efforts are reminiscent of Google's Buzz, a much maligned social network that the search engine rolled out earlier this year that automatically generated a social network based on algorithms that examined who people most often contacted via email. Despite the outcry - not to mention subsequent lawsuits - several companies are seeking to replicate this, at least for internal use, according to Technology Review.

There is IBM's Lotus division, which offers a product called Atlas that constructs social data from corporate communications. Microsoft has investigated using such data to prioritize the e-mails that workers receive, Technology Review also said. The crux of the problem, though, is determining at what point can people be considered 'friends' - is it when five emails are exchanged, for instance, or ten?

It is on this area that research efforts are now focusing - with interesting implications for marketers, depending on their own communication needs. For example, as Technology Review points out, a network based on infrequent communications might still be ideal for sharing tagged news items - but not intimate information.

Wealth of Data

There is a wealth of knowledge accumulating about social media data - and how best to use it. The research surrounding social media linkages and connections is still in its nascent stages, but perhaps may be the most promising yet - for marketers at least - as it touches upon several issues dear to their interests.

Namely: how to identify and then influence people online. There are some rough, related findings already, of course. For instance, research from Morpace finds that not only are social fans more likely to buy and recommend brands, but their friends are also likely to follow suit - specifically it found that more than two-thirds of Facebook users would take a Facebook friend's referral of a product or service seriously enough to consider actually purchasing it.

Then there is the concept of a mass influencer - the prolific blogger or Tweeter with a huge following or audience that not only reads him or her but follows all posted advice.

They make up just 16 percent of all online Americans, but are responsible for 80 percent of the brand impressions in online social settings, according to Forrester Research, in its recently unveiled Peer Influence Analysis. "Social media has created a new type of influencer - one defined not merely by number of friends or frequency of dialogue but by both," said Forrester Research Senior Analyst Augie Ray.

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