New research is underscoring the influence of social networks in marketing. Researchers at Telenor, a mobile phone carrier in Scandanavia, developed a map of social connections based on calling patterns between subscribers to analyze the adoption of the iPhone since 2007. The research showed that an individual with just one iPhone-owning friend was three times more likely to own one themselves than someone whose friends had no iPhones. Individuals with two friends who had iPhones were more than five times as likely to have purchased an iPhone.

What is groundbreaking about this research is not the realization that friends and colleagues influence what you buy, but the unprecedented ability in today’s connected world to track, measure, and quantify the effects of social influence. This newfound capability calls for a dramatic overhaul of the way that businesses determine the value of their customers.

Time evolution of the iPhone adoption network. One node represents one subscriber. Node color: represents iPhone model: red=2G, green=iPhone 3G, yellow=3GS. Node size, link width, and node shape (attributes which are visible in Q3 2007) represent, respectively, internet volume, weighted sum of SMS and voice traffic, and subscription type. Round node shape represents business users, while square represents consumers. Source: Product Adoption Networks and Their Growth in a Large Mobile Phone Network (http://www.sundsoy.com/asonam_product_spreading.pdf)

The Lifetime Value of a Customer

Traditionally, determining the lifetime value of a customer has long been the starting point for calculating  the ROI of a marketing campaign. The lifetime value of a customer is defined as the net present value of the profit a business will realize on the average new customer over a period of years from that customer’s purchases. This number is critical, because it indicates exactly how much it is worth to acquire a given customer. Armed with this information, a business can manage its marketing programs not as an expense, or for short term profits, but as a long-term business investment.

A New Metric – The Network Value of a Customer

As the research on iPhone adoption illustrates, with the rise in the popularity of social networks, it has become increasingly clear that the true value of a customer goes beyond how much he or she might buy from you directly. Traditional measures of customer value ignore the influence a customer may have on how much others buy. For example, if a customer buys your product, and then, based on his recommendation, three of his colleagues buy your product as well, his effective value to you has quadrupled. On the other hand, if a prospect makes his decision based purely on what others tell him about your product, you will be better off spending your marketing dollars on his colleagues.

The implication for marketers means that the lifetime value of a customer can no longer be considered to have captured the true value of a customer.  The advance in the understanding of how social influence effects purchase decisions has lead to the creation of a new metric – the network value of a customer.  The network value of a customer is the expected increase in sales to others that results from marketing to that customer.

The Factors That Determine The Network Value of a Customer

Which customers have a high network value? There are few businesses that have access to the kind of data that the Telenor researchers had at their disposal – billions of call records. However, by considering the characteristics of customers that have a high network value, there is data that you can collect that will begin to help you identify and target the customers that you have with the highest network value. The customers with high network value share these common characteristics:

  1. A high level of satisfaction with your product
  2. Is highly likely to recommend your product to others
  3. Is highly connected to other potential buyers
  4. Is highly influential, an opinion leader

How to Target Customers With High Network Value

Even if you don’t have access to billions of records detailing the social connections and behavior of your customers, like the researchers at Telenor, there is data that you can easily collect about your customers that can help you target the customers that you have with the highest network value. They include:

  • Collect a Net Promoter Score from each customer – The metric is simple to collect and straightforward to determine, as described on netpromoter.com:

By asking one simple question — How likely is it that you would recommend [Company X] to a friend or colleague? — you can track these groups and get a clear measure of your company’s performance through its customers’ eyes. Customers respond on a 0-to-10 point rating scale and are categorized as follows:

  • Promoters (score 9-10) are loyal enthusiasts who will keep buying and refer others, fueling growth.
  • Passives (score 7-8) are satisfied but unenthusiastic customers who are vulnerable to competitive offerings.
  • Detractors (score 0-6) are unhappy customers who can damage your brand and impede growth through negative word-of-mouth.

Source: Netpromoter.com

With this one metric you can capture the first two characteristics of a customer with high network value – they 1) have a high level of satisfaction with your product, and 2) are likely to recommend it to others.

  • Collect social network information about your customers – many companies are starting to ask customers for their Twitter and/or Facebook usernames, in addition to other contact information such as email address. The very fact that a customer is willing to give you this information is an excellent indicator that the customer is actively involved with you product. In addition, it allows you to invite them to follow/friend you on Twitter and Facebook. Also, in the case of Twitter, it allows you to follow them, and collect vital publicly available information about them that indicates how many friends and followers they have, how many tweets they have made, and their bio. This will give you a measure of the third characteristic of high network value customers – how highly they are connected to other buyers.
  • Perform a social network analysis of your Twitter and Facebook followers – you can analyze your own Facebook and Twitter followers to determine which customers:
    • have the highest number of connections
    • are most likely to pass key marketing messages along to their followers
    • have the highest influence and are opinion leaders

This information allows you to fill in the final piece of information you need to get a handle on the network value of a customer – the fourth criterion, whether they are highly influential and an opinion leader. Now you’re ready to start testing and scoring groups of customers according to their network value.

Optimize Your Marketing Programs

Clearly, ignoring the network value of a customer may lead to suboptimal marketing decisions. By collecting the information you need to assess the network value of your customers, you can now model both the likelihood that a given customer will buy from you, and the influence that customer has on other’s buying decisions. Then you can select a subset of your customers, and determine not just how much they will buy from you, but the total amount of revenue that they might generate from their influence over others. This enables you to determine the optimal set of customers to market to that will generate the highest ROI.

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