What can Kevin Bacon teach you about marketing? / Data for Bluffers #9

17 March 2022

The 6 Degrees of Separation – What can Kevin Bacon teach you about marketing? Why William the Conqueror being your not-so-distant relative can give you a leg up in the way you reach new customers? This and more in this week’s episode of the data for bluffers podcast.

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Tom

Welcome to another episode of the data for Bluffs podcast. We’ve got a really exciting one for you this week. One I’m certainly really interested to talk about. Don’t worry about what mark Ritson can teach you about marketing. What can Kevin bacon teach you about marketing? It’s linked to the set of six degrees of separation. Everyone is interconnected with each other and a few years back, it formed a bit of a trend. How many steps away was Kevin bacon linked to everyone else in Hollywood? And you know, there’s a, there’s, there’s a website it’s still out the Oracle of bacon, but you know, ed, what is six degrees of separation?

Ed

It’s a very big, uh, topic, Tom. That’s actually kind of captured imagination, I think for, for a long time, at least at least a hundred years. And it’s this fundamental idea that we are as a society kind of more connected than we might initially think. Okay. So through chains of connections between people, you can pass a message for example, to large number of people in the world that you don’t know. It really took off as an idea, kind of after the first world war people were thinking about sort of building communities and economic communities within cities and how do you connect, you know, people who might be able to help each other develop businesses together. And at the same time you’ve got the development of the Telegraph, the world is becoming more connected. You it’s easier to spread messages around.

Tom

Yeah. Yeah.

Ed

The phrase six degrees of separation comes from the title of a play that was written in the early nineties, John Gay, I think it was who wrote that play attributes it to Marconi the invent of the Telegraph. Ah

Tom

Right.

Ed

Okay. His Nobel prize speech from the beginning of the last century when he bought an, this idea of interconnectedness. Yeah. There are various kind of cultural references to it throughout the beginning of the last century. There’s a short story called the chain, which was written by a Hungarian author called Corinth in the twenties. The characters play a game where they try and connect themselves to other people in the city, see they’re in using five steps and it’s highly likely that Corinth had heard what Marconey had said, cuz they were almost contemporaries.

Tom

See, I, I always think this sounds really surprising because I’m five or six steps away from Barba or Dave gro like, you know, these kind of these big people and you think, well, if I could just go through a few of my connections, I’d probably could get them to come round and have dinner and you know, that type of thing. So it always seems really surprising from a kind of academic science point of view. Is it that surprising or you guys look at it and go, it just makes sense.

Ed

So that’s, that’s actually the kind of, I think one of the most interesting things about this. So when the mathematicians got involved in the fifties, the kind of early studies in mathematics was sort of suggesting that this wasn’t very surprising. And in fact, that concept in itself that we are a tool distant from people is what’s surprising. The reason that people came to this conclusion is sort of a natural consequence of, I guess, compounding or like just large numbers. Right? It’s similar to an idea that you have two ancestors, then your parents obviously have two each, so that’s four. So once you’ve gone back a, a few generations suddenly you’ve got thousands and then hundreds of thousands of ancestors, right? Yeah. For example, if you go back to the normal conquest, then the number of ancestors you had at that period is much larger than the population of Europe. Yeah. Or definitely the population of England. So statistically you’re quite likely to be related to William, the conqueror and the same sort of thing applies to your friendship networks and people, you know.

Tom

Right. Okay.

Ed

If they were all different people. So if I know a hundred people and each of them is another a hundred people.

Tom

Yeah. Okay.

Ed

Then in five steps you get to 10 billion, which is more than the population of the

Tom

Planet. Okay.

Ed

Kind of if, if everything was random, then actually this isn’t very surprising. What makes it surprising is that we have social structure.

Tom

Okay. Go

Ed

On. So the people that I know are very likely to know each other. Yeah,

Tom

Yeah, yeah.

Ed

And that reduces the amount of new people at each step. You get away, you where mathematicians talk about this. We often talk about something called the small world effect. You meet someone and you find out, you know, someone in common and someone says, oh, it’s a small world.

Tom

Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ed

This idea of what was at the time called the small world problem really took off in the fifties in, in mathematics. And that was people trying to measure the amount by which social structure was getting us away from this random situation.

Tom

Okay.

Ed

And the most notable study at the time was done via a Fe called Stanley Milgram. And basically what he did was he gave people letters and asked them to try and send it via all. They knew you have to be on first names terms with someone to know them. And he wanted people to pass these letters to a particular person. And at each stage then he, there was also kind of a section in the letter where the person who got it, had to sign off who they were and post it back to him. So he, he tracked the steps and in some ways his, uh, experiment was a colossal failure. Right. The, the vast majority of letters just didn’t get anywhere because, you know, in some ways he was sending junk mail to people

Tom

And

Ed

Most people were

Tom

Ignoring it. Yeah. He sent, you sent me a letter and asked me to do something I’m like, no,

Ed

Exactly. And then of all the letters that did get delivered, the average number of steps was five and a half.

Tom

Right. Okay.

Ed

It’s almost a historical accident that people were talking about five steps sort of theoretically, at the beginning of the century, they did the experiment. It came out at five and a half. So five steps is six people.

Tom

Yeah. Okay. So

Ed

If you think about that, there’s five jumps between six people. So it all sort of boiled down to, okay, well six is the number we’ll go with here. And that’s how it ended up in the, with the six degrees of separation.

Tom

Ah, very clever. What I know you said loads of great stuff there, but what I’m taking outta that, and I’m probably gonna start telling people is that I’m statistically related to William, the conqueror,

Ed

One of those interesting things or something that really interests me about the six degrees of separation is the idea that it is actually like kind of counter surprising from a mathematical perspective. But from, from a human perspective, it’s very surprising. And that’s why people, I think that’s why the idea kind of has floated around for so

Tom

Long. You know, you kind of say this has been floating around for, you know, a hundred years or, you know, that, that sort of long the world world is very different. So we’re, we’re much more global society. So is, is, is six degrees of separation still valid or is it more like two and a half degrees of separation sitting here in 2022?

Ed

Look what motivated a lot of the thought at the beginning of this story was about the idea that the world is getting smaller and you’re gonna be able to communicate with anyone. And what’s, what’s the in impact of that gonna be in Milgram’s experiment. Geography was very much the first driver in how people got the message. Okay. Pretty much every message that arrived, arrived, because whoever was the initial person to send the message thought, who do I know who lives nearest this target? Yeah. Once that had been received in the local area, sort of bounced around the town until it landed on someone who knew the person.

Tom

Right. Yeah. Okay.

Ed

And transmission of messaging across geography quickly is obviously much easier nowadays. And I mean, one example we have of this is the number of steps on the Facebook graph. So the, the network that’s within Facebook was sort of around four. So it come down a bit. Yeah. But not a huge amount, but obviously that is only people connected on Facebook. There are connections that are outside of Facebook that, you know, potentially could bring that down even further.

Tom

Yeah. Okay. Yeah. That’s really interesting. And, and I think it also sort of begs the question around, well, I dunno, she does it beg the question around the difference between online and offline? Like, are, are they different or is that just actually a really silly question?

Ed

I, I think that’s a, that’s a really good question. And you know, it goes back to in Milgram’s experiment, what means that someone knows someone, so he defined it as you, you have to know someone on a first name basis. Now that meant a bit more in the fifties or the sixties than it does now where we don’t really have this kind of formality of like, like the moment when you start to colleagues, someone by their first name.

Tom

Yeah. Mr. So, and so

Ed

Yeah, it was true even then that there are ways of passing messages back then through people you don’t know, or, you know, very tangentially that now maybe have been solidified in online networks that sort of solidification of those relationships has much greater for what you might call your weaker relationships or your weak ties. Most people don’t have more family and more sort of friends. They talk to regularly on the telephone than people did 50 years ago.

Tom

Get you. Yeah. It’s, it’s those people you went to school with or studied with or used to work with. We are now able to stay in con hack with them a lot easier than we probably would’ve done in the past.

Ed

Yeah, exactly. And that sort of suggests that then this is, I think is quite an important point for marketers. For some messages, the number of steps is smaller than others

Tom

In as a real world marketing. How do I, how do I start to apply this, you know, six degrees, this small world concept in a way that helps me, you know, amplify the effectiveness of, of my budget, you know, my, my brand awareness, how, how do we actually put this stuff into, to kind of

Ed

Actually it’s it’s yeah. It’s important to think about what message we’re sort of sending and how we are looking at our network across set of connections. Right? So the Kevin bacon game was where people were trying to find connections between people who had built, been in films. And this very much is the sort of the easy end of the message spreading where you are, you are saying, as long as I can find a link, then my message will go across it right now, most mark messages don’t work like that. You’ve gotta motivate people to share them and crucially, and this is really important. What actually causes people to share them a lot of the time is the fact that they’ve seen or encountered that message multiple times. Yeah.

Tom

Okay.

Ed

Now this is where the property of social networks that we spoke about comes in. Yeah. So the idea that, because a lot of my friends are friends with each other,

Tom

Just so I just, so I clarify something, when we say social networks, we’re talking about real world

Ed

Networks of friends, let’s call them friendship networks,

Tom

Friendship networks.

Ed

Yeah. So when you, when you think about friendship, networks, messages can move around in small areas within them. Yeah. Until someone sees it enough to that, they start sharing it as well. Yeah. Okay. That attitude towards our messages means that we are able to not necessarily just think of the sort of six degrees of separation, how wide, how broad can we spread this message because we don’t want, we don’t want our message to just be spread. We want it to have impact as well.

Tom

Yeah. And, and I guess that’s, that’s linked to a concept that I was reading about recently in of complexity as well and how easy things flow. If a stranger down the street walks past you and says, it’s gonna be sunny tomorrow. You’ll probably go down the pub. And if your mate say, what’s the weather tomorrow, you’ll go, oh, sunny tomorrow. Right. You’ve, it’s a, it’s a low consequence piece of information to pass on. And whereas if some random, strange to walk down the street and said, you know, buy, you know, insert new trainer company here, you think who’s that madman. Right. But if, if you started to hear that from, if you went to the pub and started hearing it from a few friends, and then you went to, I don’t know, tennis or basketball, and you heard that brand three or four times within the networks that you move in, you know, so for things that are a bit more high consequence than what’s the weather tomorrow circulating it in these small worlds, you know, understanding where these exist, if I’m understanding you right. Is how we concentrate on impact rather than just reach.

Ed

Yeah, exactly. Sort of that idea of messages reinforcing themselves. Yeah. Via their they’re spread through the network. So there’s actually a related concept to the six degrees of separation, which is known as the, the three degrees of influence.

Tom

Okay.

Ed

And so this is a sort of social science idea from the early NS. They were researching the ideas or what, what leads to people to have friends that have similar behaviors to them. And in particular, they’re looking at, they were looking at health behaviors. So obesity smoking.

Tom

Yeah. This was in the, this, this was big news in the, the papers here in the UK, wasn’t it sort of maybe whatever, five, seven years ago or something.

Ed

Yeah. There were lots of your friends are making you fat

Tom

Headlines and things like this. Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. Nice.

Ed

And what they, what they found was that the influence of people’s decisions, what people are influenced by stretches to about three jumps. Okay. So if you want to analyze, basically, if you want to predict whether someone’s gonna be a smoker, you wanna, how many of their friends smoke? How many of their friends, friends smoke and how many of their friends, friends, friends smoke,

Tom

Right. Yeah.

Ed

One of the reasons why that is the case is that the influence is kind of being multiplied as it moves around this network. So as people smoke with each other,

Tom

It’s really scary in a way now that now that I’m thinking about in this context, because a really obvious example is, you know, a health brand, you know, you’re gonna get more success in the, you know, that circle where three degrees of connection exists. If people are gym goers, you know, if you’re selling protein shakes or whatever it might be, it’s not, it’s not necessarily where they live. It’s not necessarily their demographic, their age or their education. It’s who they hang out with. And that’s the obvious example for lifestyle brands, but a applicable everywhere.

Ed

Well, definitely. And, and you said there that it’s not about geography, but actually we then self assault ourselves.

Tom

Yeah. Okay. We

Ed

Tend to end up living near our, our friends also in areas where people are kind of similar to us. Yeah. So there’s another study that came out around the same time. Yeah. That was looking at nudges, I would say and influence through nudges, looking at the spread of a, a kind of like health planning service. It, it was kind of like a recommendation system and the number of people who took up the service with each recommendation up to the fifth recommendation

Tom

As in an individual, like say I had, when I received five recommendations, that was the,

Ed

Some people joined after one recommendation. Yeah. The second recommendation had a bigger effect than that. Yeah. And the third recommendation had a bigger effect than that and the fourth and the fifth. Yeah. And then it started tailing off again, cuz then you are kind of, people are less

Tom

Interesting. Interesting. So

Ed

If you’re thinking about it in a marketing sense to get the maximum effect, you have to get that message to someone five times.

Tom

Yeah. Okay.

Ed

From a referral that is easier. If you give it to one person, they give it to five of their friends and those five of their friends will give it to each other.

Tom

Right. Which

Ed

Then hoping that your chains across the country, you know, your big mess, see spreading going really far and making the world small cross each other.

Tom

Yeah. I think people often think about referrals as a, a passive tool or maybe a B2C tool. You know, they, they put in a referral code in their, their E econ platform, but I think referrals are happening all over the place. If you can work out where they’re happening multiple times, or they’re hearing it multiple times, this joke about, you know, six degrees of bacon actually allows you to use those that interconnectedness to, to drive more impact from your marketing.

Ed

Yeah, definitely. And I think that sort of understanding the places or the just sort of, as I would say, like places in the network where that there is potential for that to happen can really benefit you. So, so understanding, you know, where are there a group of people who could start spreading messages to each other and therefore, you know, get that amplification of your brand, I mean, is worth saying that even in, in Milgram’s experiment, there is one sort of, part of his experiment, which definitely lives on today. And that’s in the form of influences. We haven’t really spoken about influences, but influencers of people with lots of connections that are quite important to the network, they tend to have lots of weak connections. So kind of the most successful of his experiments, half of the letters that got there actually went through one person,

Tom

Hey right. Who

Ed

Was the one step away who was like a, a, I think he was a, a furniture maker or he might have been like a, a tailor or something like that.

Tom

He was very patient getting all these letters and, and filling them out

Ed

So, and sent them all on as

Tom

Well. Yeah, exactly. So,

Ed

Yeah, but he’s obviously like someone who a lot of people knew. Right. So he was kind of like an influencer, I guess, within the community,

Tom

The rise of the influencer that we are all very familiar with in social media is because their connections are very obvious. Right? It’s very easy to see that, you know, so, and so has 200 million followers or, you know, whatever, whatever it may be. I guess what, what we are talking about here is, is how we can use that in a, in the offline one, you know, where it’s less. Yes. Right. I don’t, I don’t know how many real connections you have at, or how valuable they are, but actually what’s important is in your social circle, you have that degree of influence and, and how that’s and how that spreads. But it’s just, it’s a harder question to answer, I guess.

Ed

Yeah. I think it’s much easier to target places and groups of people than it is to target individuals who actually have that impact. Right. Cuz the, the big caveat, I guess, with the, the Milgrim influencer example is he wasn’t being, he wasn’t doing any influencing. He was just, he was just an important person in the network. He wasn’t actually influencing anyone to make decisions that that’s always a, a sort of open question with influencers is, are they influencing through themselves? And what extent are they getting eyes in front of the ads?

Tom

Yeah. A and you know, I think like you just said about the five referrals needed for the, for the healthcare. They might put the brand in front of someone, but if I see an influencer promote something, but I then don’t see it again through my own social network. It doesn’t persist and it never actually turns into any, any sort of, you know, monetary gain for the business.

Ed

There’s an argument that influences are most effective when they spark community discussion. Right. So for example, there’s a big market in gym influencers.

Tom

That’s how Jim sharp made their name. Right.

Ed

Exactly. And I think one of the reasons for that is that we know that people who go to the gym hang around together. Yeah. So once you get that message in people can then discuss it and sort of reinforce their ideas about that.

Tom

Yeah. It makes a lot of sense.

Ed

And maybe general influencing is, is less impactful because it doesn’t spark those conversations

Tom

As good as Kevin bacon is and valuable is if you’re really interested in making impact from your marketing and not just clicks and likes the so-called vanity metrics, understanding where these, these networks are at play and how you can influence them or, or use them to your advantage is actually really smart thing to do. If you can, if you can work it out. I, I think sort of wrap up what we’re talking about. How can people just experiment? I guess

Ed

There’s two things that people can do. One is the kind of consideration aspect of it, right? Consider your audience as a network, consider the relationships in your audience and think about how you might activate them. Yeah. And utilize them and how you can design marketing, which, which, you know, gets shared, but not necessarily in a viral way, but between people who are interested in the same thing, you know, that’s something you can do to try and utilize them without necessarily measuring them or mapping them or anything like that. The other thing you can do there are, you know, tools out there for mapping networks and to try and understand the structure of the network that underlies your customers and your audience. You can use those tools to then inform your marketing and give you, you know, advice or guidance as to how you might, you know, target your marketing.

Tom

Good stuff. Thanks, ed. I hope you enjoyed the episode. I certainly found it interesting. And I, you know, I wanted to talk about Kevin bacon in this concept for a while because it’s really interesting cuz there’s a lot to think about. So with that, I hope you enjoyed it. As I always say, you know, we, we all talk always about networks. So, you know, share this with people you think would, um, would benefit from it like it. And we will see you in two weeks time, say goodbye, ed goodbye.

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