All marketers want their product or service to go viral and spread through social networks through word of mouth.  One senses that the accepted wisdom is that to achieve this you need to align the interests of friends, ie you need to get friends liking the same thing and therefore spreading it through their personal networks.

New Harvard research suggests this might not be the case.  The research followed the Facebook activity of over 1,500 college students to see how they behaved and how ideas and products flowed through the group. They found that peer influence was not very important at all when it comes to spreading tastes throughout social networks.  The key to how easily things spread is instead influenced by how people became friends in the first place.  The only exception to this rule were the sophisticated followers of jazz and classical music.

This warrants further attention.  After all, if ideas don't spread via our friendships it must cast significant doubt on our traditional notions around viral marketing.  Of course this isn't to say that ideas don't spread virally through social networks, merely that the suggestion is that this is not down to friendships.

 “How many of our close friends’ tastes don’t we share? How many friends of ours have tastes that we don’t know about or pay attention to at all? And of those tastes that we do share with our friends, how much of that is a consequence of diffusion and how much of that is because those shared tastes were part of the reason we became friends in the first place?” the researchers said.

All of which must surely strike a blow to any marketer that claims they can turn on the viral tap at their will.  It suggests that people don't really spread ideas and interests through their social network.  Instead they use social media to befriend people with the same interests as them.

Whilst this might strike a blow for pretensions of viral wizardry it certainly doesn't suggest that social media is useless for business purposes.  Far from it in fact.  Rather than looking at who influences who however the focus should turn instead to who knows who.  The researchers suggest that it's our social graph that is of value to brands as it provides a clear picture of just who we all are.  Because our friends tend to mirror ourselves this has the outcome of amplifying our personalities to watching marketers.

So rather than giving us new markets to plunder, it instead gives us a much better picture of the markets we already have.