How Influence Works: Social Media and the Social Impact Theory

The social impact theory

In 1981, long before social media existed, Ohio State University psychologist Bibb Latané coined the social impact theory after conducting a series of experiments to validate his hypothesis about how influence works. Three factors make up social impact within his theory:

  • Strength: How important is the influencing group to the target of the influence?
  • Immediacy: How close in proximity in time is the influencing group to the target of the influence?
  • Number: How many people are in the influencing group?

Latané’s three rules of influence are based on these factors:

  • Impact is a function of strength x immediacy x number of sources.
  • The greater the number of sources, the greater the impact.
  • The most significant impact occurs between 0 sources and 1 source.

How does it apply to social media?

What does social impact theory mean to you, the marketing and communications professional? The theory was created in a time when there were no social networks. The principles become vastly more powerful in the context of social media. For example, look at how a network like Facebook or Twitter applies to Latané’s theory.

  • Social media provides strength in the form of friends, colleagues, and family: the people you have relationships with and whose opinions matter to you.
  • Social media provides immediacy–both temporally and virtually: the people you are connected to are never more than a mobile device away.
  • Social media provides enormous opportunity for the number of people in the influencing group.

How do you apply this theory to your marketing and PR strategies? While you can’t necessarily impact your audience’s connections to each other (unless, perhaps, you’re Hallmark or another sentimental brand), and you can’t necessarily impact your audience’s immediacy (though you can be present with frequent content), you can have an impact on how deeply embedded you are in your audience’s community. The more people who are aware of your brand, the more deeply you are entrenched in that audience, and the more impact you’ll have by way of the third part of Latané’s theory.

Get in front of your audience frequently with effective marketing and communications, and get in front of as large of a part of an audience as you possibly can. Be present and ubiquitous, and the impact you have on your audience should significantly increase.

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