Targeting: Networks Split and Grow

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, April 17, 2006
Nearly a year ago, 68 percent of adults were using the Internet, according to the pew internet & American life project. Meanwhile, 22 percent of Americans were not only not using the Internet, but didn't even live in a Web-connected home. The percentage of truly unconnected Americans has remained stable over the past three years. And there are even more divides:

>>84 percent of those ages 18 to 29 connect, while 74 percent of those 65 and older don't.

>> 89 percent of college graduates connect, while 71 percent of those without high school diplomas don't.

>> 83 percent of parents with young children connect, while 40 percent of those without children don't.

When we follow consumers online, we find that their interests and behaviors become individualized. Digital media are hardly uniform. They're a mosaic of communities. The Internet is no longer about household viewing but about individualized networks. It's no longer neighborhoods, but dispersed networks. For those who play, the Internet is creating broader and stronger social ties.

Sociological principles are now being applied to understand what's happening online. Each person's circle of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances is called a social network. E-mail is the empowering ingredient. Without active e-mail, the frequency of contacts among potential social networks declines. With active e-mail, as social networks grow, the frequency of e-mail contact remains constant, while the frequency of in-person and phone contacts increases.

E-mail enhances communications, while other Internet dimensions empower consumers with knowledge tools. These include search engines, Web sites, blogs, and the more dynamic social networks. Broader and stronger social ties in tandem with everyone's increased access to information sources are converting the age-old adage "ask a friend" into "ask a knowledgeable friend." This is becoming a pervasive approach to decision-making among the connected. When questions about illness, finance, jobs, votes, or potential purchases come up, 81 percent of Americans ask for help from at least one frequent contact, and 46 percent ask for help from one or more less frequent contacts within their social network.

Pundits say the Internet as a medium is different from television, just as television was different from radio. Digital video and consumer-generated media have both been examples to date. But the power of individualized networks and the growth of social networks are starting to provide a unifying force. Popular online industry communities, clubs, consumer gatherings like, as well as highly focused nano-communities, are examples of this force at work. The Internet has not only converted media from mass to individual. It has also switched its direction from push to pull -- a model in which you find, take, and build what you want.

Even more fundamental, the Internet has inexorably changed notions of communication and community. American culture is segmenting, splitting between the connected and the unconnected, and among segments of the connected. Americans are becoming a patchwork of interwoven communities across multiple areas.

Of course, none of this is really new. Understanding social networks has been a science since August Comte first defined them in the 1840s as interconnections of social actors. In the 1960s, the idea was advanced with the evolution of "small world" theories. Today, physicists and mathematicians are driving the theory and analyses of social networks into computational models of channels through which ideas, values, friendships, esteem, money, sales, disease, or almost anything can flow.

The math behind Google's PageRank is a simple example that tabulates citations of sites to discern importance and ultimately relevance to the searcher. BuzzMetrics and other firms are working on ways to tap into Internet "rumors and buzz" to understand consumer moods of the moment. The time is right to consider social network analyses in the media field. Surely, the science of media measurement, with all its yapping about engagement, could use it to better understand the mass of networked Internet data and to improve the targeting and tracking of consumer mindsets.

Mark Green is senior vice president, media services, ACNielsen Analytic Consulting, and the founding partner of the Media Learning Institute. (

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