Don’t Try To Shape Opinions, Shape Networks

Greg Satell
6 min readMay 13
Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Anybody who has ever been married or had kids knows how difficult it can be to convince even a single person. To persuade dozens or hundreds — much less thousands or millions — to change their mind about something important seems like a pipe dream. Yet that doesn’t stop people from spending significant time and energy to do just that.

In fact, there is a massive industry dedicated to shaping opinions. Professionals research attitudes, identify “value propositions,” craft messages and leverage “influencers” in the hopes that they can get people to change their minds. Yet despite the billions of dollars invested each year, evidence of consistent success remains elusive.

The truth is that the best indicator of what people do and think is what the people around them do and think. Instead of trying to shape opinions, we should be shaping networks. That’s why we need to focus our efforts on working to craft cultures rather than wordsmithing slogans. To do that, we need to understand the subtle ways we influence each other.

The Influencer Myth

Malcolm Gladwell, blockbuster book, The Tipping Point, popularized his “Law of the Few,” which he stated as: “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” This reenergized earlier ideas about opinion leaders, the supposedly secret people who somehow have outsize influence on others.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the communications industry quickly jumped to promote the idea of secret “influentials” living among us. Clearly, if you’re looking to shape opinions, being able to identify such people would be incredibly valuable and, it goes without saying, firms who could claim an expertise in leveraging those powers could earn outsized fees.

Yet the actual evidence that these people actually exist is incredibly thin. Even the original opinion leader research found that influence was highly contextual. In a more recent study of e-mails, it was found that highly connected people weren’t necessary to produce a viral cascade. In another, based on Twitter, it was found that they aren’t even sufficient. So called “Influentials” are only slightly more likely to produce viral chains.

Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer,@HBR Contributor, - Learn more at