This interview is a transcription of the podcast, Paul Adams on Influence and the Social Web.
Welcome to Author Talk. Author Talk is an audio podcast featuring Peachpit and New Riders publisher Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel interviewing authors about their latest works, techniques, and technologies.
Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel: Congratulations on your book, Paul—Grouped. It's very exciting!
Paul Adams: Very exciting.
Nancy: You put a ton of work into it, a lot of writing and research. I know you like research, but what about the writing?
Paul: The process was actually interesting for me, because I've worked with a lot of research in the past, and the process of writing the book was actually similar to the process of doing research and trying to have people act on it in a business or in a company. A ton of the material and content in the book comes from a lot of academic research papers from many of the world's leading universities. I had to synthesize them, derive patterns from them, and try and take this quite abstract research data and make it actionable and easy for people to understand. So the process of writing was actually very similar to the process of doing research and creating principles inside a company.
Nancy: Interesting. So, in your experience researching, were there any surprises along the way?
Paul: There were a few surprises. Sometimes I found two research papers that would contradict each other, and so I needed to figure out why and how, and look for more research that shed more light on the topic. You know, a lot of these things that influence aren't black-and-white, so people have different opinions and interpret research in different ways. But I think the most surprising thing—and the thing, going back to that writing process, the thing that I really had to be disciplined about—was that social interaction is so complex, and there's so much research coming out of universities and technology companies all the time [about it], that I could have kept going and going and going. So I needed to learn where to stop and draw a line, and say, "Okay, I have enough data. It may not be perfect, but I have enough data to create actionable patterns for people that are grounded in research and based on solid insight."
Nancy: Were there any surprising finds—anything that was a "favorite" find, that you had kind of that "Aha!" moment?
Paul: Yeah. Some of the book is about our social interactions, and how we communicate with other people and relate to other people, and some of the book is about how our brain works. At first glance, you may think these things are not completely related to each other. But I actually got really into it. I was kind of reading on the periphery, some stuff about the brain, and suddenly it all started to tie together in terms of how we make decisions. We do turn to our friends disproportionately. But a lot of that is because of what's happening in the brain, and how our brain is structured, kind of chemically. Physically, we have a non-conscious brain and a conscious brain, sort of an emotional brain and a rational brain, and it was surprising to me to learn the power of the emotional brain—the brain we can't access.
Paul: People find it a bit hard to understand. We can't tap into it. So we ask people why they made a decision, why they like this product over that product, and often they give us an answer, but that's not necessarily the truth. Because they don't know; it's their non-conscious brain making the decision.
Nancy: Interesting. You debunk one of Malcolm Gladwell's theories in your discussion "The Myth of the 'Influentials.'" [Chapter 5] That was my favorite "find" in your book. Can you tell us more about that?
Paul: It's very interesting. I think The Tipping Point  was a fantastic read, but I think it oversimplified the topic. A lot of people have subsequently done research on it, because it really took off. It was such a catchy idea that it really took off, especially in the marketing world. People started to look for these "influentials"—these overly influential people in society. The goal is, you know, "If we find them and market to them, they will influence the masses." Which is really a reflection of how they want the world to work, versus how it actually works.
Nancy: Um hmm.
Paul: If it did work that way, things would be easier, which is why I think the idea caught on. But the truth is, we're much more influenced by the people emotionally closest to us, and not sometimes physically closest to us. While there may be overly influential people in our social networks, they're extremely hard to find, they're extremely hard to identify, and in the vast majority of cases it's actually our closest friends, our small groups of trusted friends, who are influencing us the most.
Nancy: So what you're saying is it's the hubs that really drive it, not the influentials.
Nancy: So marketers are going in the wrong direction, it sounds like—some of them, right? If they're following that path.
Paul: Yeah, I think so. This idea of tipping points and influential people definitely was the prominent theme in marketing for the last decade, but I think it's gonna change for the next 10 years. It's gonna be much more around close friends. What's interesting is that the idea of a tipping point and influentials is very appealing to marketers because it gives them scale. You know, "If I find this one guy, he's going to influence tens of thousands of others. If I just find a bunch of those, I've got a scale of millions." They think about their close friends, and the small 4–5, or less than 10, people within a group, and they think, "Oh, it doesn't have scale." But actually it does have scale, because all of these groups are all connected to one another.
Nancy: Right, right.
Paul: One of the examples in the book is that we have an average of 130 friends on Facebook, which means we have approximately 8,000 friends of friends—which is actually quite a conservative number. And that means we have about a million friends of friends of friends.
Nancy: That number is pretty powerful, right? How do you harness that network? How do businesses harness that network of people?
What do you think about the future of the social Web? You talk a little bit about that in the book, at the end—about what we can expect in the next 2–3 years and beyond.
Paul: One of the major shifts I talk about in the book is that the Web is being rebuilt around people. The reason for that is quite simple, in my mind; it's that humanity is tens of thousands of years old. Certainly we've lived in communities and groups for about 10,000 years. And the Web is only 20 years old. So all that's really happening is that the Web is catching up with offline life. You know, almost everything offline is driven through social interaction. We strive to interact with other people. And the Web is just catching up. What that means for business is that the things that they've done in the past have 5–10 years to adapt to the emergence of the Web. It's pretty incomplete. They're also going to need to reorient their business, especially the digital side, the Web side of the business. It's increasingly becoming everyone's whole business.
Nancy: Absolutely, yeah. It touches everyone.
Paul: We're going to need to reorient that around people. And people understanding social interaction is gonna become a core requirement. I actually think it's gonna become a requirement for success.
Nancy: So you were saying that we should pay attention to three things, I read. I think I'm remembering these things correctly from the book: 1) social behavior, 2) the power of the network, and then 3) how the human brain works, really. Right? Those three things—how people think. And if businesses can get those three things right, then they'll be able to move into this future that's gonna be very people-oriented. The first step is reading your book. [Both laugh.] But what else can we do? Because, clearly, that's just the first step.
Paul: Right. It's been an interesting process writing the book, because these topics are very complicated, and it's very complex to understand. So a lot of people just walk away from it. They dismiss it as a fad, or as something that's gonna go away—but then go and socially interact with tons of people, right? So it's definitely going to change. What I've tried to do in the book is this: You can read this book in two hours. I've tried to make something that's really actionable, really short, gives people this base level of understanding. There's references throughout the book; then, at the end of each chapter is all of the references and a "find out more" section.
Paul: So people, as a first point, can go and look at the "find out more" section, I think there's typically between 10 and 25 references in each chapter. So they can start to look at the original source material I used—research papers, other books—and kind of go from there. This gets deeper and deeper—it's like a rabbit hole.
Paul: There's definitely no shortage of material for people to dive deeper into these topics.
 Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2000.