middle status are most likely to adopt early and be influenced by others.>
Marketers seek to leverage social influence among customers to accelerate the penetration of new products and technologies. To do so effectively, they need to identify and target (1) innovators, who adopt early and can speed up the product’s early penetration and generate quick positive cash flow; (2) influentials, who can accelerate the product’s penetration and boost the ROI on marketing investments; and (3) imitators, who are especially susceptible to social influence and so require less marketing inducement once their peers have adopted.
In this report, authors Yansong Hu and Christophe Van den Bulte examine the impact of social status on who is an innovator, influential, or imitator. Their findings provide deeper insight into the mechanisms through which contagion operates, and improve managers’ ability to identify customers likely to adopt early and to influence others into adopting.
Much current research assumes that the higher an individual’s status, the sooner he or she adopts, the more he or she influences others, and the less he or she is susceptible to influence by others. Leveraging insights from social psychology and sociology, Hu and Van den Bulte propose and test the notion that, for innovations that have the potential to boost one’s social rank, the tendency to adopt and the susceptibility to contagion are higher for individuals of middle status than for individuals of either low or high status. They also examine how various dimensions of status and use experience make early adopters especially contagious and hence influential.
They conduct their investigation in the context of commercial kits used in genetic engineering. This research setting has two advantages. First, social status was likely to matter considerably for this new product’s acceptance by scientists. Second, the setting provided two clean metrics of social status: centrality in the network of co-authorship ties, and citation counts.
Hu and Van den Bulte find that middle-status, rather than high-status, individuals are most likely to adopt early. Similarly, middle-status, rather than low-status, individuals are most susceptible to contagion. These findings, the authors note, may apply only to new products and technologies with the potential to boost one’s social rank.
They also find that high-status adopters are more influential or “contagious” not simply because they are connected to more people but also because they exert more influence within each of their ties. The amount of experience using the product boosted the adopters’ within-tie contagiousness as well.
For managers keen to leverage social influence dynamics, the findings imply that new product launch campaigns should not focus exclusively on customers with the highest status or centrality in the network. While high-status individuals are the most influential once converted into adopters, middle-status customers are actually easier to convert into adopters, both independently and through social influence. Thus, astute marketers will want to find the optimal balance between focusing on high- and middle-status prospects.
Yansong Hu is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick. Christophe Van den Bulte is Associate Professor of Marketing, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
The authors thank research fellows and assistants at the School of Life Sciences of University of Warwick and at the Conway Institute of Biomedical and Biomolecular Research of University College Dublin for their advice and help with collecting and coding the data. The authors also benefited from discussions with Ran Kivetz and Oded Netzer, and from comments by Jonah Berger, Stephen Brammer, Lloyd Harris, Gary Lilien, Renana Peres, Ezra Zuckerman, participants in the 2012 University of Iowa Marketing Symposium, and seminar participants at the University of Texas at Dallas and Warwick Business School. This study was supported by research development funding from Warwick Business School. Part of the research was conducted while Van den Bulte was a Chazen Visiting Scholar at Columbia University.
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