Saturday, 29 November 2008


I think one of the most under-explored ideas in social media is group polarisation. In Wikipedia it is roughly defined as a phenomena that has the effect of transforming people who have mild views, who then participate in a discussion group, into advocates with more extreme positions and call for riskier courses of action when compared to individuals who did not participate in any such discussion. For example attitudes such as racial and sexual prejudice tend to be reduced (for already low-prejudice individuals) and inflated (for already high-prejudice individuals) after group discussion.

The last time I wrote about this I posted that if as IDC forecasts, 70% of content will be user generated by 2010, then even the most controversial brands will have to hand over power to their audiences, and let them talk on their sites. I've worked with several brands that are understandably nervous about this. My stock answer attempts to reassure on three levels: 1) if they don't talk on your site, they're going to keep talking in a place where you don't have any control; and 2) if they are talking elsewhere then bring them to a place where you can effectively give your perspective to them, but in front of the Undecided (so you at least convince the Undecided ); and 3) if you don't open up, it looks like you are scared of talking and thus guilty.

I'd now like to add that the Obama social media success story adds a type of delphic validity to my views . My strategy was not about those on either extreme of the argument. My approach was about the Undecided. Obama's strategy was also about the Undecided, not the people who would never vote for an African-American, or who were die hard liberals. The now infamous Undecided voter was the focus.

If you check out the comments on the blog you see that it became a meeting place for the die-hard activists and loyalists to share their experiences, rather than a place for debate between people of diverging views. Even on his Facebook Wall the comments are about support and sometimes adulation. It seems his critics just never visited. The site was for the Undecided and the loyalists. Thus if group polarisation was in operation then the net result would be to shift the waverers towards Obama even more.

The chart below (chart 1) confirms this with data from Google Trends for Websites. It compares people who searched for (in blue) and (in red) and looks for what sites they visited in common.

Chart 1 - The sites also visited by those visiting (in blue) and (in red)

In chart 2 below you can see that the sites that McCain supporters visited were very different, and had little overlap with Obama's.

Chart 2 - the sites also visited by those visiting (in red) and (in blue)

Obama's main website was an interesting strategy, but it mainly attracted his fans. The most interesting strategy was which was developed to counter smears and 'to discover the truth about Barack Obama'. Obama is quoted on the site "What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon -- that sees our opponents not as competitors to challenge, but enemies to demonize." Chart 3 below shows that the strategy worked as it attracted audiences that wouldn't visit

Chart 3. Sites those who visited (in blue) also visited and (in red) comparison

You can also see in chart 4 what those who visited fight the smears searched on versus those who visited

Chart 4. What those who visited fight the smears searched (in blue) on versus those who visited (in red)

The issue of Obama's place of birth and birth certificate became a smear that was widely pushed by the right, and fight the smears became a counter for this on the web for the Undecided who genuinely wanted to know the truth. It also seems to have become a place for right wing extremist to check out for ammunition.

The Obama experience and fight the smears confirms my original view when I last wrote about group polarisation. I said brands fear a type of riot on their sites led by a few hardliners who will infect the Undecided and the positive visitors with their negative opinions resulting in everyone becoming more extreme, and suggested the response should be:

"...brands don't have to surrender control to anarchy if they open up to community discussion. Martin Luther King guided a group, and turned it into a movement. A movement that was angry, but at the same time pacifist, a movement looking for change, but driven by age-long ideals. A positive form of group polarisation is possible if it's driven by leadership that shapes the debate, sets the agenda, and moderates the discussion by providing a balanced counterpoint to the opposition's arguments. This also means being open and honest. Show both sides of the argument, compartmentalise the debate into different discussion streams - which you define.

Start the community on topics peripheral to the brand's core theme, then gradually move towards the core. Use advocates of the brand to be your evangelists, and get them to share their experiences with people in their social graphs. And perhaps most importantly, don't see it as a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser, but instead a mechanism for funneling the collective intelligence of your stakeholders into your brand. There's wisdom in those crowds. "

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