Book Review “Grouped” and the Future of Social Marketing

In the world of books, once in a while there comes one that you can’t put down, that you agree with so much, that you constantly obsess with, and that you instantly respect the author for being so prescient with it.

Grouped: How small groups of friends are the key to influence on the social web by Paul Adams was that kind of book for me. Paul Adams is a Facebook researcher working on ads products, and he previously worked at Google in social research and on the Google’s Circles project.

I came across Grouped about a month ago, and it was the best $11 I spent on Amazon’s Kindle store.

It’s obvious that Paul has been thinking about the dynamics and implications of social networks harder and deeper than most of us as reflected by the insightful statements he makes that sum it all up. It is rare to get this kind of insight from someone that has seen it both from Google and Facebook’s perspectives.

First off, I really liked the book’s excessive use of the term “Social Web”, which is a better term than Web 2.0. I have been using that same term as well for a while, and it typifies something greater than just Social Media, Social Networks, Social Games, Social Commerce, etc. In a nutshell, it’s “everything social about the web”.

The key take aways surrounding Paul’s thesis are as follows:

  1. The Web is being rebuilt around people and moving away from being built around content.
  2. People live in networks, and for the first time we can accurately map and measure social interaction.
  3. Networks determine how people are influenced, and once we start to measure how people really influence other people, it will change how we do business.

At first blush, these 3 principles sound like basic observations, but their compounded realization has profound implications. Paul takes us on the journey of how they are interrelated.

The Web of People
The big loser here is the Web of Content as a standalone entity. Adams backs it up by saying: “This is correlated with a major change in how people spend their time on the web. They’re spending less time interacting with content, and more time communicating with other people.”

This is certainly true given the increasing importance of commenting and social conversations around specific content and blog posts.

More and more, the conversation around a given piece of content is more interesting or important than the post itself. The AVC community certainly proves that point, and the explosion in commenting activity growth is real.  For us, Engagio is squarely in the middle of this trend,- the intersection of Conversations and Relationships.

Networks are our Habitat
This part of the book may be the least interesting from an actionable perspective because Paul Adams offers irrefutable facts and factoids. My advice? Just accept these facts or ignore them at your own peril. And that is the undertone of Adams’ message.

On the dynamics and psychology of social networks, the book asserts that “social behavior patterns are thousands of years old”. So true.

Among the behavioral aspects of the social networks, a notable mention is scientist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi who found that networks are governed by three laws:

  1. The first law is growth.
  2. The second law is preferential attachment.
  3. The third law is fitness.

You’ll have to read that section in the book to fully understand these 3 points, but here are some related nuggets of advice:

“Don’t bolt social. Social is by design. Design the product around people. Social behavior is the key feature.”

“Not Technology, not Content, but People first. “

This is music to a product manager’s ears.

Networks Determine How People are Influenced
First, Paul takes a rant by attacking the myth of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell when he described The Law of the Few. Paul Adams’ point is “People with many connections are not necessarily more influential”. Paul is right, and I am in violent agreement with him (reference my post Does Influence Really Matter on the Social Web?). Paul Adams states that “we confuse early adoption with influence”, whereas I’ve said “we confuse thought leadership with influence.” Both are good arguments.

The rest of this third theme seems aligned with Facebook’s direction: micro precise peer-to-peer based advertising. For some, it smells too close to a Facebook strategy, but regardless, this might be the future of Marketing and Advertising on the social web.

Paul Adams believes that the world of marketing is going to change in the next 10 years because peer-to-peer influences are increasing. Basically, “we’re influenced by the people around us.”

Here are more nuggets:

“Sharing is a means to an end”. “We don’t share facts, we share feelings, things that draw emotional responses.”

“More than the act of sharing content, marketing campaigns need to support conversations.”

“We live in a world of exponentially increasing information which we can’t consume. We’re going to increase our reliance on our social networks to make decisions.”

“Whether someone can be influenced is as important as the strength of the influencer.”

“Our strong ties influence us the most.”

And this observation from a talk that Paul Adams gave at UX Week: “Influencers/celebrities make us aware, but they don’t make us decide. For example, you don’t buy a Mercedes-Benz because you see tennis champion Federer in their Ad. You buy that car to show your neighbor that you’re rich.”

Paul Adams sees the rise of Vertical Social Networks, each one disrupting entire business industries. Games, Entertainment, Commerce, Education, Travel, and others will be hit one by one. Games were first with Zynga totally disturbing Electronic Arts. The rest will follow.

Paul believes that advertising and marketing on the social web need to be more meaningful and relevant via an increase in permission marketing that is tightly coupled with your existing friends relationships. These beliefs are framed by the following statements: “In a world of too much information, people turn to their friends.” “The amount of permission can increase over time.”

The Debate around Social Marketing
Without saying it, Paul is describing “social marketing”. Indeed, the social web does put word-of-mouth on steroids, and this has profound implications. But there are unanswered questions that are on my mind pertaining to the How and Why of Social Marketing:

  • - Why should my “social reach” be gamed for marketing purposes?
  • - How are we going to implement social marketing meaningfully without abusing the trusted privileges our friends have given us within social networks?
  • - Will we see more transparency about the monetization strategies pertaining to how friends will be used for boomerang marketing and advertising?
  • - Are friends’ recommendations consequential to a given personal relationship or to the network itself?
  • - How conducive to social marketing should a social network be? If I said that “product X is cool” on a public network, is that an implicit authorization for Brand X to take my conversations and use it to market to my friends?

I would like to debate Paul Adams on the future of social conversations and its implications on 1:1 relationships as framed by the above questions. Is Marketing/Advertising the key objective or is it the objective a deepening of 1:1 relationships? In my opinion, the first one has clear monetary objectives. The second is more fundamental to human relations and has the potential to unleash a lot more than just creative social marketing tactics.

My interests are squarely aimed at the intersection of Conversations and Relationships. Turning conversations into 1:1 relationships has been Engagio’s goals, whereas Paul is hinting that we have an opportunity to turn Conversations as a Marketing weapon against our 1:1 relationships.

“People don’t trust marketers”, says Paul Adams, but my response is why should we trust an intermediary (let’s say Facebook) to filter what my friends are saying so it appears like they are marketing to me?

The final chapter in Paul’s book leaves us deserving this debate on social marketing. I’m glad he is continuing to write about the future of marketing and advertising on his blog Think Outside In and in this slideshare presentation Why Marketers Misunderstand Facebook, but a live debate (instead of a presentation) will help to better clarify and explain why social marketing and advertising are beneficial to us.

As usual, the conversation starts here in the online Commenting space. What are your thoughts? (and don’t forget to check the book out)

Enhanced by Zemanta
  • awaldstein

    NIce book review.

    I read this book on vacation a while back and was impressed with it as well. Not as impressed as you but with some good takeaways.

    The web of people is key and something I embrace completely. Reading his book mimicked many of the ideas I have been developing for awhile . 

    Where we differ is in two areas:

    -”Sharing is a means to an end’.
    Not if that end is commerce. Using the author’s company as an example is the best case in point.

    Facebook is both context devoid and transactionally barren. I would argue that the chink in Facebook’s armor and this idea is that the growth of vertical markets and innovation in combining transaction with shares is happening because Facebook has not figured out this puzzle.

    -’Social marketing’ 
    I don’t buy into this as a strategy nor a category actually. This is the social media pitch.

    Do I believe that behavior is key to understanding how to build markets and communities and sales funnels? No question. Do I believe there is a separate discipline that is extant from an integrated approach. Not at all.

    Here’s what is true.

    Everyday all of us use the web to do most everything. The social web in fact. 

    Those same individuals go to work at their companies, sit in front of their computers and have few ideas how to take what works on them on the flip side and create pull for their products and companies. Likewise we have lots of noise and little signal. Lots of eyeballs and little engagement

    With context. Without intent. Without value. You have only luck on your side. Risky way to market or live.

    Great topic. I spend my life thinking about it.


    • William Mougayar

      Agreed there are some aspirational themes in the concept of social network-driven marketing. At least Paul is trying to push the enveloppe in this area, and let’s see how it unravels in reality. 



    • William Mougayar

      OK. But how does this affect Facebook? I don’t think they give as much value to external/hybrid communities. For them, a Facebook page IS THE COMMUNITY and all efforts are meant to optimize the user/fan’s experience around it via connections and influence elements. (as far as brands are concerned) 








        • JohnExley

          I think it’s way too early to say Google+ has “failed” my man GRIMLOCK. Especially with the addition of Kevin Rose and Daniel Burka recently. 

          However, I think Google’s first mistake with “Plus” was going web first instead of starting off right away by hitting Facebook right where it hurts most: mobile. 

          That said, I do agree with you – to a certain extent – that Facebook’s “walled garden/locked village square” approach may be a screw up long term. But for right now, I think it has been extraordinarily successful. Same as Apple. 

          There are a ton of people who will always try to define themselves by publicly voicing their complaints about companies like Facebook and Apple being “closed” as opposed to “open”. I just think that they’re largely wrong. 

          Facebook is still winning. It is still the most popular social network/community on the planet. Facebook will lose only when the popular zeitgeist thinks they’re “too cool for Facebook” and start to flock to other places and bring their friends with them. 

          Unscientifically, when I look at the little brothers and sisters of my friends back home in Rochester, this hasn’t happened yet. Most of them, even as young as 11, still join Facebook “first” and spend most of their time there. But, the signs are already there (in my personal view) that it’s not gonna be like that forever. Kids are splintering their time… mostly because of mobile, and the menu of “cool” options. They’re tweeting away, starting Tumblrs, jumping all over Pinterest, taking photos on Instagram (ok ok ok, so this is now “FB” property), and even running away to the more intimate Path. 

          Long comment (as usual haha), but the point is, I don’t think Facebook has lost, and I don’t think the “locking the community in a square” is what will ultimately be the reason they “lose”. 

          • William Mougayar

            The other variable that’s up in the air I think is Mobile. It will be interesting to see how Facebook handles a native Mobile experience…if they ever do.




    • William Mougayar

      That’s a great distinction. Thanks Grim.

  • JohnExley

    For anyone who likes to think long and hard about the sociology aspect of the Internet, this is a fascinating topic – and one that Paul Adams understands as well as anyone. 

    Really glad you wrote about his book and reminded me to check this all out. I just spent a bunch of time looking into his background and watching a couple interviews with him on YouTube. Actually found this livestream of an hour-long talk he gave in San Francisco a couple months ago: — from what I can tell, it has a ton of the same concepts from his book and that you highlighted in your review here. 

    It’s worth checking out!

    • William Mougayar

      Thanks John. I hadn’t seen that video and will check it out.

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim

    superb book review and will definitely be adding the book to my list.

    Regarding the topic of influence – I still wonder the degree of influence that a social web connection has versus a personal connection. In other words, while I am definitely influenced by people whom I never met but am connected to digitally – I am much more influenced by individuals whom I am connected to digitally and non-digitally (real life interactions). Those that can built a successful digital presence coupled to non-digital presence will have most influence in the future.

    • William Mougayar

      Yes, the book touches upon that aspect actually. There is a symbiotic relationship. You’re right.