Have you ever wondered how close (and mutually influential) the social network friendships are? If you’re an online marketer, you more than likely have; especially when Facebook opened up for ads a few months ago.

The first step to answering the question is to look at the different kinds of social networks. Some believe that all social networks are generally the same, but in a video posted by BusinessWeek a week ago Danah Boyd of Microsoft pointed out that the assumption that there is essentially only one sort of social networks (that we are talking about in different ways) is wrong. There are, in fact, 3 types of social networks: (i) personal networks (people you trust, and sincerely care about), (ii) behavioral social networks (people you spend time with, and communicate with on a regular basis), and (iii) articulated social networks (examples: cell phone address book, Facebook, Twitter). “The challenge is that we don’t understand the relationship between these three types of social networks and we’re trying to find ways to make sense of the theory that has come out of sociology and try to apply it” to our marketing said Boyd.

Cameron A. Marlow, a research scientist at Facebook, conducted a study to determine how close we really are to our online “friends”. BusinessWeek summarized:

They looked at how often people clicked on their friends’ news or photos, how often they communicated, and if the communications traveled in both directions. Studying this data, they determined that an average Facebook user with 500 friends actively follows the news on only 40 of them, communicates with 20, and keeps in close touch with about 10. Those with smaller networks follow even fewer. What can this teach advertisers? People don’t pay much attention to most of their online friends. By focusing campaigns on people who interact with each other, they’ll likely get better results.

Converting the above data into percentages, we arrive at the following pie chart:

Social network friends

An average Facebook user (a) actively follows only 8% of his/her
friends, (b) regularly communicates with 4%, and (c) keeps in close
touch with about 2%. With the exception of those of us who are
fascinated with the social media marketing (like myself, a good half
of the people I follow on Twitter, and many of you who have landed on this page), the majority of users just do not
have the time (and/or the desire) to follow 86% of his/her “friends”. People that are present on the articulated social networks, tend to focus, and interact with people, on two sub-networks (i) a personal one, and (ii) a behavioral social one. On Facebook, the “friends” on these two make up only 14% of the total number of friends an individual has. I wouldn’t be surprised if on Twitter this number is significantly lower.

These are some sobering stats, which leave us with some food for thought on how to target our marketing efforts through the social media that are engaging more minds and hearts every day.