Three Degrees Of Separation?

Posted by

How does influence really work? According to a recent study at Harvard University: "although a person may be connected to other people by six degrees of separation, he or she is influenced only by those up to three degrees away."

That’s the story from the Harvard Business Review in the news item, The Dynamics of Personal Influence.

"… a person’s influence progressively diminishes as the degrees of separation increase. For example, the risk for smoking in a person connected to a smoker (that is, at one degree of separation) is 61% higher, on average, than would be expected as a result of chance. It is 29% higher if the friends of that person’s friends smoke, and 11% higher if the friends of the person’s friends’ friends smoke. By the fourth degree of separation there is no longer an increase in risk."

What does that mean in terms of business and Marketing?

"Efforts to foster creativity or innovation might depend on the degree of separation of the relevant parties. And groups of customers – including customers who have online connections – might be strategically targeted so as to take advantage of their influence on one another."

Are there any surprises here? The closer an individual is to another individual, the more influence they have on one another – particularly when it comes to purchasing decisions. These digital channels are beginning to enable companies (or the people who work for companies) to foster real interactions and even friendships with consumers. Brands that embrace the digital channel – and do so in the spirit of conversation, providing real value and not acting like pushy salespeople – are going to be the ones who will be most referable and have the most loyal customers.

How human is your Marketing? How great are you (and your people) at fostering real relationships with your consumers? How many degrees away are you? How many pixels of separation?


  1. Whoa! Last I checked, the popular saying of six degrees of separation was reduced to three. If that remains correct, then the Harvard study is wrong. If the Harvard study is correct, then what is the purpose of social networking if nobody can be connected to everybody?

  2. I saw that article earlier.
    Ari, it doesn’t say that the 6 degrees of separation have somehow collapsed down to three
    (its actually 6.6 degrees of Separation according to the massive Microsoft Messenger study
    but that influence drops off to insignificance/randomness after 3 degrees.
    I think that finding can be safely extrapolated beyond the original study conditions. If we assume we have 50 friends, that’s an impact footprint of 125,000.
    How many out there think you can persuade 125,000 people to do anything? How about give you a $1?
    (I am accepting paypal contributions)
    But of course the study measured propensities therefore actual propagation impact is considerably less than 125,000.
    Obviously propagation impact footprints depend on what we are trying to achieve, how much it costs in terms of effort, money, change of behavior, change of attitude and how much we benefit by forwarding- let alone the credibility/authenticity of the sender.
    Many people are trying to capitalize on the social graph. This post is fun.
    “Why Facebook wants you to have 100,000 friends”
    This post outlines Duncan J Watts ideas about Big Seed marketing – a bridge between ‘viral’ and ‘mass’ advertising
    No promises, but in a couple of weeks hope to complete a summary of studies quoting various propagation rates. In the interim, Sean Moffit has a slideshare presentation you might be interested in

  3. Hi Mitch.
    Just gotta say I don’t agree with the study. People all over the world are influenced by others whom they’ve never met.
    Rock stars, movie stars, the Pope… they all influence people who are degrees and degrees away from them. They influence how the fashion, the language and the viewpoints of people.
    Maybe I’m oversimplifying but I don’t believe your influence is limited by the degree of separation you have with someone.

  4. Hey Mitch,
    The whole question of of human is your marketing I think really becomes potent when you ask the additional question “how relevant is what you are selling, to the wants, needs or desire of your customers”. You put the influence factor together with something people will clamor for and then I think at that moment your premise takes on a different type of existence. When you have something that people will really potentially want how much more impactful is your ‘human marketing’, your range of influence than other strategies?

Comments are closed.