Marketers: Pay attention to the structure of your networks or someone else will | Inc.com – Inc. | Region & Cash

As leaders, we see these stories of social activism, launched against brands that believe they’re doing fine in our world, and then suddenly confronted with upheaval by enabled networks. It’s easy to disdain the choice made by the brand and its agencies, pointing the finger at our armchairs.

Hell, I pointed the finger myself. Public.

The more difficult but critical work looks at what underpins the structure of a brand’s network and the role it plays in these backlash stories. We tend to focus our attention on the marketing decisions and the resulting reputational damage, which is understandable. A public blindside is enough to keep even the most confident leader up at night. But the fact of the matter is that networks can generate social capital for brands that are able to limit the damage or even counteract the antagonism.

Before we delve into how executives (or marketers, depending on who works with your social media networks) manage network structure to build social capital, it’s important to understand how network structures fit into social capital creation in the first place .

Smart leaders understand the importance of three bonds responsible for building social capital, and they intentionally curate them to generate value from their networks: cognitive, relational, and structural.

Cognitive ties are the work of your marketing department and agency: a cognitive meaning system—a “conceptual apparatus,” as social capital researchers call it—told through stories, symbols, sounds, and smells.

Relationships are what we think of most when leading diverse and successful teams: providing security and trust to keep members engaged in something bigger than the work at hand.

Structural ties, to which executives pay far less attention in my experience, are concerned with how connections are related, the extent to which connections form bridges between other networks, the diversity of those connections, the impact of a particular connection, and how dense they are (or lack thereof ). All of this plays a role in how a network works, a leader’s role in facilitating action within it, and the social capital they derive from it. This also applies to internal networks built and curated by executives, as well as online networks.

Basically, influencer marketing reflects our intuitive understanding that different relationships have different value to networks and that we can intervene to use this to our advantage.

Structural ties are so central to the governance of social capital that one expert has gone so far as to define social capital as the “opportunity structure created by social relationships”.

And if you’re not paying attention to your network, no matter how complex and daunting it may seem, you’d better believe someone else is. A rather harrowing example that I discuss in my book tells the story of a low-level manager at a manufacturing company who took it upon himself to build a systematic process of hiring friends and family and build an influence network over a 30-year period for his own purposes. He was able to create such pervasive separations between his network and senior management influence that the founder and CEO completely lost control as the situation escalated into a state of bomb threats and shootings.

One of the OG stories of social activism is Greenpeace’s coordinated campaign to raise awareness of Nestlé’s destruction of orangutan habitats. One of the strategists involved in the campaign told me that he and his team “look for the smallest weakness in a brand [social network] armor, and we’ll start hacking away at it. If it gives way, we know we’re on to something.”

There is clearly a lack of professionals with leadership qualities to “develop network relationships that connect people and actively manage those network relationships,” as one leadership paper puts it.

So what exactly do social capital-savvy executives do to manage the fabric of their networks?

First, acknowledge that asking the marketing department to curate it is usually a mistake. The groundbreaking book Connected, by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler, has fundamentally changed the way I approach social media, online or in person, as a leader and as a marketer. As Christakis and Fowler will teach you, social networks are sophisticated systems with stories, memories, even agency – and with very different roles played by their various members. A far cry from the audience and channel thinking that marketers apply to social networks.

Second, get to know the nodes in your network. Find and track influencers, look for patterns, ask your network lots of questions and rate engagement. Social scientists have term and network mapping techniques that you can use to add some fields to your CRM, or you can create your own tags specific to your context. In any case, practice a discipline of structural awareness.

This may feel overwhelming when you think of online social groups, but it doesn’t have to be a Herculean effort. Savvy social media leaders who focus on community rather than marketing find ways to be practical on some level. The creator of Xbox’s Elite Tweet Fleet (that name never gets old) told me that she knew her most dedicated followers by name and sometimes met them in person. “It felt like we knew her personally,” she told me. And they often did: “We met some of them at gaming conventions where we were asked to speak on panels. [Meeting users] was one of my favorite things about my job.” Another executive who built a multimillion-strong online community for a debt relief organization told me she previously convinced anonymous community members to post advice publicly by asking “community members there hit where they were,” and she identified the most insightful posters to create and address them individually and directly. Small acts of hands-on network curation like this can create tremendous value.

Finally, build a culture of inclusion and equity, whether within your internal network or online. So-called weak ties are actually the catalyst for enormous power within networks. But connections that involve different backgrounds and networks will not add value in an untrusted and insecure place. So assume zero tolerance for intolerance. Develop a practice of listening to newcomers. Kill trolls instantly. Expand your network by amplifying the voices of the marginalized. And ask how you can add value to networks outside of the network you manage.

Networks alone do not create value. The actions and activities among them do. Understanding the structure of how that value moves in and around your network is one of a leader’s most important skills. It can help, if not avoid, at least mitigate those social activist horror stories.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own and not those of Inc.com.

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