Business Report

Spotting Influencers in Big Companies

Northwestern startup mines data and uses surveys to help companies identify their key people.

In 2009, Zachary Johnson, a junior at Northwestern University, decided to promote the pop music of a friend at Duke, Mike Posner. Through a few calls and e-mails, he identified influential students at six college campuses, then asked those students to promote Posner’s music in a coördinated way on Facebook, building an extensive friend network around the artist.

Noshir Contractor, a professor of behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, cofounded Syndio Social.

If sales are any proof, Johnson’s marketing worked. Posner’s single “Cooler Than Me” hit number 6 on the U.S. Billboard charts in July 2010. Partly on the basis of this success, Johnson launched Syndio Social, a startup that provides consulting services to show companies how to leverage a few key individuals.

“You can do the same thing for a company that sells toilet paper as you can for an artist who sells pop music,” says Johnson, who cofounded the company with a professor, Noshir Contractor, under the auspices of Northwestern University’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “It’s possible to see who are the key connectors and culture generators in a business.”

Syndio Social starts by analyzing data from sources such as e-mail and project records to build a picture of who communicates with whom in a company. Contractor says internal communications usually contain enough “digital traces” to generate an expansive picture of working relationships across a large company.

To gain a deeper understanding of work relationships within the organization, Syndio Social often relies on employee surveys and academic insights about how communication networks function. The company then maps those relationships and helps managers figure out how to use information about key influencers. It’s especially useful in larger corporations, where relationships are more difficult to map.

Johnson says Syndio Social also works with companies undergoing mergers and acquisitions. “It’s making sure the right folks who hold things together aren’t fired in the merger,” he says. “If you have a company that has three people who tie things together, even if they aren’t the highest performers in numbers, you want to make sure they stay.”

The company is one of several startups applying social-networking approaches to aid businesses. These new companies reflect a corporate awakening to the value of social networks, says Valdis Krebs, who has run a, a consulting firm specializing in network analysis, since 1995.

Right now Syndio Social consults with clients on an individual basis, but ultimately it aims to build software that any company can use without requiring expert help.

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