Liz Gannes

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Q&A: Facebook Researcher Paul Adams Says Real Influence Is in Our Inner Circles

Social technology researcher Paul Adams made waves in the past couple years as a thought leader and a hiring target. Now he has written a book.

Adams jumped to Facebook from Google last year, as the two companies were preparing to go head to head on social networking, his area of focus.

This wasn’t just a random hire — Fortune recently called Adams “one of Silicon Valley’s most wanted.” Adams joined Facebook after Google had started development on Google+, whose central concept of “Circles” of friends can more or less be traced to some of Adams’s thinking about how social networks should resemble real-life relationships.

That lineage is publicly known because a slide deck Adams made on the topic was widely circulated online in 2010. He was working on turning the ideas into a book called “Social Circles.” After Adams left for Facebook, Google quashed the book, something he publicly complained about last summer.

Now, Adams has reshaped some of his thinking into a new book about social influence that is targeted at marketers. Called “Grouped: How Small Groups of Friends Are the Key to Influence on the Social Web,” the book was released in December.

In fact, since he joined Facebook, Adams has changed his focus to working on advertising products, both as a product manager and a researcher.

“Grouped” references much of the same research “Social Circles” would have, according to Adams. The new book also includes some data drawn directly from Adams’s new employer.

For instance, Adams writes that an internal Facebook study of private messages, chats, wall posts, “Likes” and comments on status updates determined that users directly communicate with an average of only four people per week, and six per month.

Based on that and other findings, Adams argues that targeting close relationships between people with similar lifestyles that carry the most potential for marketers.

(What’s interesting, but perhaps a topic for another day, is that Facebook as a company has recently been pushing what seem like opposing perspectives about how information is spread between diverse and distant Facebook contacts, and how marketing on social networks can quickly spread across many degrees of separation.)

Here’s a slightly edited and condensed write-up of a phone conversation I recently had with Adams about his new book:

Liz Gannes: What are you doing now at Facebook?

Paul Adams: I’m a researcher, working on ads products.

“Grouped” is about how influence works. Give us the brief version of your take.

The main argument I was making was that, at a very basic overgeneralized level, people are most influenced by their friends.

There’s this myth of “influencers” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” It’s popular in marketing because if it’s true, it’s perfect — you just find someone who’s heavily connected and your product will start jumping off the shelf.

But people are most influenced by those around them, whether physically or emotionally. A lot of us are influential, and all of us can be influenced, given the right context. It comes down to the relationship we have with people, and also credibility.

In your book, you give a bunch of examples about how experiences like games or shopping can be made more valuable with friends. But I have to say, I’ve tried plugging in Facebook to Etsy, and I don’t think it was terrifically helpful to know that my friend who likes “Harry Potter” might want a Harry Potter shirt. And I’ve used Facebook Connect on Airbnb to try to find hosts who have friends in common with me, but really, that seems like finding a needle in a haystack.

It’s definitely early. Influence in general is really complex, and we’re at the very early days of understanding how it works. There’s interaction and there’s personalization. The Etsy example is personalized based on interests. The Airbnb one could be a bit more social, because [connecting to Facebook] creates opportunities for conversation.

The amount of information that we’re generating is increasing exponentially, so I think over time there will be a ton more information around what people are interested in, and who they know.

Who is the intended audience for “Grouped”?

The primary focus of the book was people working in marketing — Coke, Nike, huge global companies, but also people working in the agencies they hire. I think it’s generally applicable for lots of areas of business, but I think that’s the community that needed it the most.

Marketing, for the last 50 years, has been about interruption, and it’s basically a race to the bottom. All these guys are trying to come up with more and more creative ways to interrupt people. We have a finite amount of information processing, and that’s not going to change in our lifetime.

There was a great book, 10 years ago, by Seth Godin, about Permission Marketing. We need to be thinking about a world where people put their hands up to say “I like something.”

How has the initial reception to the book been?

I think it’s still very early. Because I’ve worked at technology companies, you think you either launch things and they take off, or they die — but the publishing industry is not like that. The initial reception seems good. There’s not really a Twitter hashtag, and it turns out there’s all these other crazy tweets including that word, but the tweets I’ve seen have generally been positive.

I’m surprised the book hasn’t been more popular, given there are so many people these days doing social media marketing.

The kind of marketing on Facebook now is the Wild West. People are calling themselves “social media gurus,” but you can’t be an expert in something that hasn’t been around for a while. Those guys are trying to differentiate themselves without much reflective thought. And the other challenge is that I’m trying to say, “What you’ve done for the last 50 years is wrong, you need to reframe how you think about the world.” And that’s hard for people to hear.

Isn’t that the premise of every business book?

I guess that’s fair, but I’m not really framing [“Grouped”] as the next great thing. What I’m saying is this is about how people have always interacted socially. It’s not about technology.

What’s the story about how this evolved from the book you started writing about social networks at Google?

They’re two different books. The first book was about social behavior, how you might build a social network that reflects real-world behavior. The second book, in my mind, is pretty much a different book, but with similar sources, because they’re canonical research.

The first book — it’s pretty open knowledge that Google blocked the first one. I kind of tried to persuade them otherwise, but I failed. I looked at my options, and used the same source material and started a new book.

What are some of the untapped frontiers for social influence?

One of the things I feel about strongly is, I talk to creative agencies — the guys that create all the content for ad campaigns — and they kind of look at all these technologies and wonder if they’re passing them by. When I talk to them, I say, “This is a huge opportunity. All these platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Google+ — are all just containers for content, and you guys specialize in creating good content.” Once they understand why people share content, it’s an amazing opportunity.

What about all the stuff Facebook tells advertisers about how recommendations from friends and “Sponsored Stories” are better than traditional advertising?

That’s still true. It goes back to credibility and influence. The ad formats we have that feature your friends have a higher engagement rate. One interesting metric is “likelihood of purchase,” which is incredibly hard to move, and these friend campaigns do tend to move it. But people forget that the content is a huge lever — if I can just get my friends to share the content.

It feels unusual to find a guy like you, in Silicon Valley, who’s really passionate about the future of advertising.

I’m not so much interested in advertising as I’m interested in influence. That was one of the reasons I came to Facebook, was it was an amazing opportunity to work on that problem. It might be a little idealistic, but my goal was to move the world of advertising to something that was really relevant to people.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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