Social media expert talks research


Leading social media expert Sinan Aral spoke to the university Thursday about “social commerce,” or the influence that sites such as Twitter and Facebook have on culture and business.

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Courtesy of Steve Garfield /THE REVIEW
Sinan Aral, an associate professor of information technology and marketing at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management presented his latest research findings regarding the growing role of social media.The speech was part of the university’s sixth annual W.L. Gore lecture series in management science.

An associate professor of information technology and marketing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, Aral presented his latest research findings regarding the growing role of social media.

“I’m a professor of IT, which is obvious from the beginning of this presentation,” Aral joked after a portable projector had to be brought in to display the presentation due to technical difficulties.

Aral’s talk focused on how data from social media impacts consumer behavior and viral marketing. He emphasized that the goal of marketing and political communication is to inspire behavioral change on a large scale, and showed that his research helps to uncover how this happens.

Aral used Fitbit, the popular fitness product that tracks physical activity, as an example of how digital social signals from friends influence people. If someone sees their friend ran five miles today, it is likely to inspire them to run five more than the friend, Aral said.

The 2010s are all about being socially linked, Aral said. He broke down the past four decades into different kinds of media engagement. The 2000s were summed up by customization, the 1990s by segmentation, and the 1980s characterized by a single message.

“So, if your company focuses on segmentation, you’re about a decade or two behind,” Aral said.

One study Aral conducted focused on identifying susceptibility to influence in social networks. He and his colleagues divided people into how they labeled their relationship status on Facebook: “single,” “in a relationship,” “engaged,” “married” or “it’s complicated.”

They found that people who label themselves as “married” are least susceptible to influence in their social networks, while those who label their relationship as “it’s complicated” are most susceptible to influence, followed by “engaged.”

“Basically, if it’s complicated, you’ll pretty much do anything people tell you,” Aral said.

Another study he did focused on who has more peer influence in certain relationships. One finding was that less active friends have more influence over their more active friends.

To the clear surprise of the room, Aral revealed that his research found that men were more susceptible to influence from other men than women were to be influenced by other women.

Aral brought up a time when he was reviewing an “average” restaurant on Yelp and after reading someone else’s highly positive review, he decided to give the restaurant four stars, rather than three. It got him wondering about the integrity of the rating process, he said.

His research on the topic shows that the tone of reviews at the beginning influences the tone of the reviews at the end by a large margin — 25 percent. He termed this the “superstar effect,” because an average place’s ratings can snowball into stardom just by an initial positive review.

Aral said businesses must encourage positive customers to rate and review early.

Olga Saprykina, a scientist and part-time graduate student at the university, attended the event because she just wanted to learn more.

“While I didn’t go for the digital marketing aspect, I’m trying to understand the science,” Saprykina said. “I liked that it was very factual.”

The speech was part of the university’s sixth annual W.L. Gore lecture series in management science. The lecture series features experts in the application of statistics, probability and experimental design to decision-making in the realm of academia, business, government, engineering and more.

Bruce Weber, dean of the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, expressed his gratitude for the endowment provided by the Gore family to keep bringing experts to speak at the university.

“I’d like to thank them for making this event possible,” Weber said.

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    Thanks for sharing valuable research

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