Every person has a personal network of relatives, close friends, somewhat close friends, acquaintances, and so on. The subgroups within a network may be defined, e.g., work colleagues, immediate family, school friends, bowling buddies. The larger a person’s network, the higher the percentage of friends to family, because people have a limited number of family members.
From "sparsley knit” to dense personal networks
Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman define “sparsley knit” personal communities as those where most network members are not directly connected to one another. This is more common for a person who doesn’t have a lot of online activity. However, the more a person engages online, especially on social networks, the less likely their personal network will be sparsley knit. “…it is a good bet that the internet—especially Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and email—enhances the density of interconnections among a person’s relatively close ties by allowing friends of friends to become aware of each other” (Rainie and Wellman p. 135).
The lexicon of social networks allude to network density with “friends of friends” privacy settings on Facebook and follow recommendations on Twitter.
What does network density mean for business?
People are less likely to be able to separate their network into silos because of the network’s increased density and the interconnectivity of their connections. It becomes increasingly difficult for a person to be one person for one group of connections and a completely different person for another group. The higher a person’s network density, the more likely they are to share content that is appropriate for the network as a whole. Millennials are being warned to care for their online identities with future employers in mind, for example. While Facebook still allows a person to sort their connections into lists, with each list having its own privacy settings, newer social networks have two options: public or private, as we experience on Twitter and Instagram.
This changes what content your customers will share and how they share it. While you have many different ways your business can respond, there are two that may be useful.
Create Shareable content
One is to create content that is shareable in any context: something millennials would share with their boss but also with their best friend. While you could just focus on what your product means to the millennial, and get a click-through, if you are looking for shares you need to think beyond the individual to their network and how they may feel about their network. If you are targeting influencers who are most likely to share, it means they are also naturally most connected online, which translates into higher personal network density than the average. Create content for a network, not just for a buyer persona.
Host a Pseudonymic community
Another option is for your business to host a pseudonymic community. This allows people to share with the public and review content that is not fit for segments of their network. Amazon does this well, allowing reviewers to create pseudonyms so that they can review personal care products without the embarrassment. For example, while someone might recommend a treatment cream to close family members who may struggle with a similar ailment, the share won’t travel past them unless your business has provided a pseudonymic disguise for your product shares to travel past the unseen reaches of “dark social.”
A business' social media marketing cannot target just the individual buyer or focus on how likely a piece of content will resonate with him or her. Now you have to think about the potential that person will share the content with their network. Network density means that more people have the potential to see a share, but makes the sharers more discretionary about what they post online.