The Tangled Webs We Weave

Posted by: Jessica Cornick, PhD
  • October 18, 2016

the-tangled-webs-we-weave_455x290When I think of big data, many images and phrases come to mind… things like computers and servers and large groups of people. What doesn’t come to mind is trees, and more specifically, how trees communicate amongst themselves.

You might be surprised to find that trees communicate with each other at all. In fact, they not only communicate but are able to send and request resources from up to 47 other nearby trees (Radiolab did an excellent podcast episode about this amazing phenomenon). The trees are nodes in a larger network and are connected by millions of nearly microscopic fungus tubes enabling messages and resources to be sent and received amongst the trees. By mapping the links amongst the trees, researchers can determine which trees are most influential throughout the network (spoiler alert: it’s typically the biggest and oldest trees).

Getting back to big data, trees are the nodes of their network with fungal tubes providing the links between these nodes, much like a person is a node in a social network with relationships serving as the links. When conducting a social network analysis using big data, researchers are often interested in understanding how one person fits into a larger social network and as well as understanding how the network at large segments into groups. Social network analyses have been used to understand a wide array of phenomenon including familial connections, disease transmission, and even patterns of criminal activity.

If a person has more links associated with their node in a network, they are said to be more interconnected and influential to the social network (and in marketing terms, dubbed an “influencer”). Identifying and leveraging these influencers to market products has become a key approach in brand marketing as companies strive to reach more specific market segments. I’m sure we have all seen a celebrity endorse a product on Instagram or Facebook (either directly by saying they use or recommend the product, or indirectly by being pictured with the product). These celebrities are selected for the influence they have over the target market and used to convey messages about the brand and its products.

Research on an influencer’s impact in a network isn’t new. An influencer of a group is often someone who embodies the ideals of the group and most closely represents what it means to be a group member. In social psychological literature, the influencer is known as the prototypical group member. Prototypical group members are more liked by other group members, given more leadership roles, and seen as more trustworthy and legitimate; all traits you want in a brand influencer. So by using social network analyses and social listening techniques, companies can identify influencers (people that are highly interconnected with others), leverage these influencers to market the brand or product, and then track changes in conversation, use and sales for the brand in the target segment.

So while at the outset it doesn’t seem like trees and fungus have anything to do with big data analysis or marketing, they have more in common with processes than you would think. Mapping the network of your consumer base can yield fantastic insight into who does the influencing and who does the listening.

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