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Sizing up Social Networks for Wellness

Social” and “social networking” have been buzzwords in the health and wellness space for some time now. Given the phenomenal success of Facebook, and research [1.  One of the best-known examples of such research is the book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives – How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do (Christakis, Fowler)] showing the impact of social networks on individuals’ health, industry players have been quick to roll-out “social” capabilities. Typically, a given social network is made available to the entire user population, as a way to foster the kind of social interaction that will lead to beneficial behavior change.

But the truth is, we all have different social networks for different reasons, ranging from tens (or even hundreds) of people down to a single individual. For example, the group I meet at the local pub is quite different from the group of people with whom I share information about raising kids. Still another group I interact with is one that openly shares personal finance tips. There is no single network that I go to all the time, for all my social information-sharing needs.

At WebMD, we don’t feel that social networking should be a one-size-fits-all feature. The proper size and type of social network depends on the health and wellness goals of the individual, and to some degree, the objectives of the organization. Based on this, we classify social networks as being either large or small.

Large social networks create a critical mass of users

Large social networks are those that can contain tens, hundreds, or even thousands of members. Large networks are best at creating a critical mass of users, and are well-suited for a number of use cases:

  • Rapid dissemination of a network effect on behavior change
  • Creation of excitement, fun, competition, and a sense of camaraderie
  • Alignment with team-based health and wellness activities

Small social networks can raise member accountability and support

Small social networks are limited to a small number of individuals—certainly less than ten people, and potentially even less than five people. Small networks are especially helpful in addressing the concept of “diffusion of responsibility”: the larger the group, the less responsible its members are to each other, and vice versa. Small networks are applicable to the following use cases:

  • Creation of an elevated sense of accountability and consequently, a greater level of support
  • Application to more serious/private situations, such as health conditions
  • Limiting use to family members/close friends

So what does this mean for WebMD? Given the characteristics of both large and small social networks, we enable both sizes, and match them with our appropriate products.

On one hand, we support large social networks to help clients rally their populations around organizational health or wellness goals by quickly gaining engagement over a set period of time—ideal for our Wellness Challenge product. On the other hand, we support small social networks to help users reach and maintain a personal (not company-dictated) goal over longer periods of time—an excellent feature for our Daily Victory exercise habit-formation app.

Going forward, we will expand our social network versatility, and across more of our products. Ultimately, our goal is to connect our users with those people who can have the maximum positive impact on their health.


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