A Washington Post story covers a new study by Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School and James Fowler at the University of California at San Diego published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine tracking the pattern of smoking - actually quitting smoking - through a social network. They are not refering to an online social network but rather to the more common offline network we all participate in - in this case one whose core focal point is geographic.
Here are the interesting parts:
- Over the course of 30 years, the number of smokers in the network dropped from 45% to 21%
- Closer relationships (family, co-workers in small companies, etc..) had more influence and impact
- Yet a single person's quitting seemed to have an effect at least through 3 degrees of separation
There are two assumptions the article reports that I question:
1. The drop in smoking was probably the effect of a shift in 'social norms.'
No doubt. And 'social norms' have become a common lever in social marketing circles (behavior change). We hear it a lot from clients in the government trying to affect change. It has always been around but seems to have risen to the surface of many campaigns via the messaging - e.g. "most people form a driving contract with their teenagers...."
Think about smoking. I quit early in my twenties. When someone quits in your 'circle' you talk about it. It does not remain a secret. People ask what's up, how are you doing with it, how long has it been. The 'quitter' explains their irritability, the different programs they are trying, how long it's been. There is tons of conversation and word of mouth. The researchers previous study focused on obesity. While impolite to mention a ballooning weight, it is also visually obvious. Talking about it, if even in more hushed tones, is inevitable.
I would love to know how many conversations happened between network 'members' about smoking. What was the role of word of mouth?
2. The remaining smokers ended up on the fringes of society. The illustration "proves" this point. I have no doubt that the role of smokers in society has dramatically changed in 30 years. In fact in a recent post, I reported someone's observation that they had become the last true counterculture. They cluster outside office buildings in the scorching heat or bone-chilling cold in small groups to pound back a cigarette.
But are they really the outcasts the article and study suggest? What if you layer in all of the other social networks they may belong to: movie lovers, scifi enthusiasts, wine afficianados, Harley owners? The geographicly rooted social network is one dimension of a "n" dimension of affinity groups we all belong to formally or informally. While the smokers may become isolated in the original network, they may lead vibrant, connected lives across other social networks to which they 'belong.'
Using Social Networks for Social Marketing
The implications of the study on social marketers' use of social media and social networks is great. Can behavior change experts embrace the use of new digital networks to accelerate the spread of social norms and word of mouth? They will need to let go of some control - a lot of control - to do so but we may just find a way to produce behavior change in something under thirty years.
The report confirms the usefulness of engaging influential groups within a network:
"Moreover, medical and public health interventions to encourage people to quit smoking might be more cost-effective than initially supposed, since health improvements in one person might spread to others. Finally, the isolation of smokers within social networks suggests that blanket policy approaches (e.g., advertising and taxation) may be usefully supplemented by interventions targeting small groups."
Roll Up Your Sleeves
If you are interested in how social marketers will begin to use social media (don't get them confused), you shoudl check out Nedra Weinrich, is in town on June 2th to hold her 2.5 day Social Marketing University. This is more than Social Marketing 101. Nedra is a leader in defining how to harness digital innovations and social media for behavior change (social marketing). You can sign up for the regular course Next Generation Social Marketing Seminar on June 4th.