Widening the scope of your CRM campaigns to take advantage of customer social networks

Peter Ebbes, Professor of Marketing - April 10th, 2017
Widening the scope of your CRM campaigns to take advantage of customer social networks - Peter Ebbes HEC Paris  ©Fotolia-Jakub Jiràk

Marketing campaigns traditionally target individual customers, while ignoring their social connections. In a recent study, however, Eva Ascarza, Peter Ebbes, Oded Netzer, and Matt Danielson, had unique access to telecommunications data and a field experiment that enabled them to take a first-ever look into the effects of a traditional customer relationship marketing campaign on social connections. 

Peter EBBES ©HECParis

Peter Ebbes is Associate Professor of Marketing at HEC Paris. Before joining HEC Paris in 2012, he taught at the Ohio State University and Penn State University. He obtained his (...)

See CV

Our wide social networks are increasingly connected through social media and telecommunications. Technology enables us to create more lines of communication and our networks can be tracked. Peter Ebbes explains how these social networks could be of interest to marketing executives. “Traditionally, customers have a ‘customer lifetime value’ that predicts how profitable a company’s future relationship with them might be,” he says. “However, so far, marketers do not consider the value of a customer’s social network as a component of their lifetime value.” Ebbes and co-workers wondered what the value of social connections might be: “Could the network of an individual make them a more or less valuable customer?”

Collaboration between business and academia: a win-win 

The team embarked on a successful collaboration with the Seattle-based company Amplero, a big data and analytics firm, which gave the researchers unprecedented access to customer data. In their field experiment, they used telecommunications information from over a thousand individuals. “We staged a traditional marketing campaign whereby a randomised selection of prepay telephone customers received a message designed to increase their phone usage,” Ebbes explains. “Normally, we would only be interested in how successful the campaign was in relation to a control group who did not receive a message, but here we wanted to see if there was a ‘trickle down’ effect of that campaign through the target customers’ networks of social connections.”


Firms and industries are in a great position to take advantage of the increased profits that a network can provide.

Marketing affects the social network

Only the target customers’ primary connections who use the same telephone provider were tracked. To be considered a connection, two calls had to have been made, to or from the target, in the four weeks prior to the experiment. Ebbes discusses the team’s findings: “The connections of those that received the campaign were found to be less likely to suspend their contracts and more likely to increase their activity, relative to the control group,” says Ebbes, who goes on to add: “This is interesting as the connections themselves were not targeted and did not receive a marketing message. As the experiment was randomised, we can say that the campaign caused an effect on both the targeted customer and also their connections. So, for the first time, we demonstrate that traditional marketing campaigns have a social spill-over effect.”

A social multiplier

As a consequence of the marketing campaign, targeted customers increased their overall phone usage by 35%. Individuals connected to targeted customers increased their usage by 10%. This increase was not seen in individuals connected to the control group. From this data, Ebbes estimated a social multiplier of 1.28. He explains, “We see that the campaign has a spill over effect of 28% on the usage of the target customer’s connections. This is something that could be utilised by businesses to increase the profitability of targeted customer relationship marketing.” The team then altered their analysis approach and showed that increased activity among the non-targeted but connected customers is driven by the increase in communication between the targeted customers and their connections. This means that the marketing campaign propagated through the network to affect the non-targeted customers. Consequently, these customers also became more valuable to the company even though the company did not spend a penny on targeting them. 

Networks increase potential profits for firms 

Ebbes emphasizes that this study is applicable to all businesses with clear network externalities, which have the ability to target individual customers and observe their social connections and activity. “Firms and industries that offer products using networks or whose services require underlying networks are in a great position to take advantage of the increased profits that a network can provide,” he says. “At the moment, these include companies with stakes in telecommunications, online multiplayer games or file-sharing services like Dropbox, but there are also potential gains for traditional businesses.”

Based on an interview with Peter Ebbes on his paper “Beyond the target customer: social effects of CRM Campaigns”, co-authored with Eva Ascarza, Oded Netzer, and Matt Danielson (Journal of Marketing Research , in press).

Practical Applications
Practical Applications

“Our research should encourage businesses to take advantage of customer networks to increase their profits. It enables marketing managers to measure customer lifetime differently; by considering social networks, they can now consider the customer, not only as an individual, but as a portal to a larger customer base.” When planning marketing campaigns, business can use Ebbes’ work to improve targeting. He adds, “Firms need to wake up and grab that extra cash lying on the table. Ignoring their customer’s social networks means that a pool of potential profit is untapped.”

social networks spillover Ebbes

Ebbes et al. ran a field experiment using data from a telecommunications provider. 656 pre-pay telephone customers were selected at random to receive the same marketing message to entice them to top-up their phone credits. A control group of 385 individuals received no such message. Traditionally, a marketing campaign would evaluate the behaviour of those that received the message, but here, Ebbes and colleagues focused on the actions of the network of the targeted individuals. The network was made up of primary connections that the targets call or receive calls from, and who use the same service provider. Through empirical analysis they demonstrated a substantial increase in usage among target customers. Importantly, the team also saw a 10% increase in usage among the connections of targeted customers, who were not themselves targeted by the campaign.