Leveraging Social Networks for Social Change: A Guide to the Perplexed  

August 18, 2017 | News

A blog of insights and learnings from a member of the Rosov Consulting team

By Zohar Rotem

We all know that we live in a networked society. Even outside the realm of social media, what we think, feel, know, and do is shaped by the people who think, feel, know and do alongside us. In itself, this is hardly news. However, with “social networks” rapidly becoming a buzzword, it is important to tell hype from reality. All too often, the terms “networks” and “social networks” are over-used and abused. So here is a little “guide to the perplexed.”

I would like to explore three, interrelated questions:

  1. What can the philanthropic and non-profit sectors reasonably expect to get out of “leveraging,” or “tapping into,” social networks?
  2. What does one need to know (and, just as importantly, what canone realistically know) about those networks one wishes to leverage for social change?
  3. And finally, how does one go about attaining that knowledge? What methods are available for the study of social networks?

Tags: ,

What’s in a (social) network?

Understanding social networks can help us more effectively reach the population we would like to serve and change. Take recruitment as an example. Both research and experience teach us that personal contact and word of mouth – the right endorsement from a trusted peer or mentor at the right time – can make the difference in converting a potential program participant into a registrant. But that level of contact is an extremely resource-intensive approach to recruitment.

So where does one spend most of one’s energy? Armed with a sophisticated understanding of a users’ social network, we may conclude that the person on whom we want to spend the most resources is not necessarily the person we most want to impact, but rather the person best linked into the networks (and the richest, densest networks) of our target audience.  

Once one determines the most effective “ins” into a social network, it’s quite possible to use a similar strategy for purposes other than recruitment. Still, it is important not to be overly optimistic about the power of social networks. An unattractive idea is unlikely to take off, no matter the structure of the network or how well you understand it. 

What should we (and can we) know about social networks?

The three most important things to know about a social network are what it looks like, what holds it together, and how it changes over time.  

1. What does it look like?

Social networks are comprised of people, groups, and institutions (these are sometimes called nodes or vertices) and the relationships, links, or connections between them. When we seek to understand the underlying structure of a social network, we typically look for the following:

Hubs are highly central, highly connected individuals with potential reach into many other parts of the network. These individuals or groups would be, for example, the ones we would reach out to first in order to spread information to the rest of the network.

Cliques are relatively small clusters of highly-connected nodes that are otherwise loosely connected to the rest of the network. Sometimes, cliques may present a challenge to a social intervention because they may restrict the flow of information.

Bridges could be individuals or groups that are only loosely connected to the network, but who happen to link together two sections of the overall networks that are otherwise distinct. Bridges would be the key for sharing information across the disparate sections that they span.

Peripheries describe loosely connected individuals with only few or no links into the rest of the network.

2. What holds it together?

People can relate to each other (and to other entities, such as organizations and institutions) in different ways. Someone may be part of your social network because they are your colleague at work, or because they are your friend, or because they are your spouse. So beyond asking who, and how many people a person is connected to, we also need to know something about the nature of that connection.

3. How does it change over time?

Networks are fluid and changing and it is this change that is often of most interest to non-profit organizations and philanthropists. In some cases, change in the structure of a social network can be an indicator of a desired change (for example, the fact that more people in your audience are networked may mean that they have shared a similar experience, perhaps participating in a program). In other cases, changing the structure of the social network can be part of the intended outcome to be measured (for example, getting people who belong to separate groups to interact and form relationships may be a programmatic goal).

So, how do you learn about a social network?

Collecting information for analyzing social networks can be challenging. Without going into the complexities of collecting data for the purpose of social network analysis (a topic for a different post, perhaps), here are a few examples of how we at Rosov Consulting have leveraged social network data to evaluate the impact of our clients’ work:

In a small Jewish community, a local program provider and its funders want to recruit the social networks of local Jewish teens to increase Jewish participation. They also want to connect institutional silos created by denominational differences. To assess how wellthey are able to do this, we fielded a survey to all known teens in the community (and asked them to share with their friends). What we learned helped us to compare the actual network of teens to the community’s perception of itself.

In a large city, a neighborhood initiative tries to bring together a dozen or so local institutionsto facilitate greater Jewish engagement. By interviewing representatives of each organization and asking them to describe their relationship with each of the other partners, we will be able to assess the gaps and “cliques” within this network. By repeating this set of interviews two years later, we will be able to evaluate the success of this coalition building effort.

In a different city, a new initiative for teen engagement wants to build a physical and programmatic “hub” for Jewishyouth workers. To know whether bringing professionals into the same physical space changes how they work together, we conducted a “systems mapping” exercise, where each partner draws a map of where their organization falls in relation to all others. Repeating this exercise in a year or two will allow us to assess whether the new hub also facilitated new partnerships.

Where does all this leave us?

The concept of leveraging social networks for social change may seem exciting, but without a clear understanding of what social networks are, what knowledge is needed to effectively recruit them, and methods for assessing change in a social network, one may be left with little more than trendy hype. When engaging an external evaluator to collect and analyze social network data, look for a consultant who can articulate clear answers to the following questions:

  • Why is social network analysis recommended over more traditional forms of evaluation?
  • How does the evaluator propose to collect social network data, can they explain the merits of the proposed approach?
  • Can they articulate the questions that can and cannot be answered by the analysis?

Hopefully, this post created more answers than new questions. With any questions, though, please reach out to me at zrotem at rosovconsulting.com