Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

Mapping Word of Mouth

Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

Mapping Word of Mouth

Article excerpt

MICROFINANCE

To spread the word about a new service, the Indian microfinance institution Bharatha Swamukti Samsthe (BSS) approached leaders in 43 villages-teachers, shopkeepers, savings group leaders, and the like. The goal was to publicize the program by encouraging these leaders to tell their friends about it. But in some villages, only 7 percent of households eventually took out a BSS loan, while in other villages up to 44 percent did so. What accounts for the difference?

According to a team of researchers who studied the BSS initiative, the choice of whom to tell first matters a lot. "There are very specific ways of measuring who the most influential people are in a society, in terms of spreading information," says Matthew Jackson, an economist at Stanford University. He and his colleagues have developed a new measure of social influence that's especially relevant in cases when word of mouth is an important medium of communication.

BSS entered the Indian state of Karnataka in 2007. Beforehand, Jackson and others on his team mapped the social network in each village that BSS intended to target. The researchers asked members of each household about their friends-the people whom they visit, pray with, lend rice and kerosene to, get advice from, and so on. Later, they used that information, along with data from BSS on which village leaders were initially introduced to the program and which households ultimately signed up for a loan, to model how the program spread.

Certain people had a greater impact on diffusion of the program than others. "In some villages, the teacher was very central" to a village network, Jackson says. "In other villages, the teacher wasn't." The researchers identified the characteristics of the most central village leaders-the ones who, in effect, were able to broadcast information farthest. And, as it turns out, those leaders don't just know people; they know people who know people. …

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