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The Internet is now a significant source of health information for millions of Americans. Many go online simply to look for insights into a health problem that they or their loved ones are experiencing. Some, though, want to connect – to find others who share their medical condition. For this, they turn to online health communities.

These types of sites can be very helpful to those who participate in them, especially in terms of offering emotional support. But some online health communities are more successful than others. Their effectiveness is often tied to the presence of what is known as “influential users.”

Identifying these influential users is important to the success of any online health community, according to a new study from American Cancer Society and Pennsylvania State University researchers, published January 21 in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.

Ken Portier, Ph.D.,an American Cancer Society researcher and co-author of the study, says that he and the other researchers first set out to analyze general sentiment using one specific online health community – the Cancer Survivors Network, an online peer support community of more than 174,000 cancer survivors and caregivers, run by the American Cancer Society.

Analyzing sentiment online – often called “opinion mining” – consists of developing a computer program that combs through what users write to assess their emotions. Many corporations use this type of information to gauge how customers feel about their brand or about a certain product.

For an online health community like the Cancer Survivors Network, this type of analysis can help those who run it better understand the types of information and emotional support that users need most. When Portier and his team did this, they realized how important the users who act as emotional influencers are in online health communities.

Influential Users Provide Encouragement, Comfort

Portier says that new members typically come in with negative sentiment. In the Cancer Survivors Network, for example, new users’ first postings might be focused on how scared or upset they are about their diagnosis and the treatment they are going through. But other community members – the influencers – who respond to the initial postings are generally much more positive, often offering encouragement and the comfort of shared experiences. As a result, subsequent postings from that new member become much more positive.

That finding, says Portier, made the researchers wonder: “Can we use this posting behavior and sentiment to identify who the influencers are in the community – to find who the people are who have the characteristics of a leader?”

The answer is yes. The researchers have in fact developed a new metric that they say is highly effective in identifying the influential users in online health communities. To devise the new metric, the researchers analyzed member contributions to discussion boards from July 2000 to October 2010 on the Cancer Survivors Network, which gets about 25,000 visits per day.

According to the researchers, their new metric can “measure an individual’s influence in providing social support and altering other members’ emotions in an online health community.” Giving social support and influencing emotions are two actions that can ultimately shape users’ experiences in online health communities. Those members who can do both successfully are an asset to the community that community managers can cultivate and leverage.

Greta Greer, director of survivor programs at the American Cancer Society and a co-author of the study, says being able to easily pinpoint these people is important because “in a community as large as the Cancer Survivors Network, [a community manager] can’t keep track of every new person and what’s going on with them on daily basis.” Knowing who these leaders are, she says, “helps you identify people who just need some nurturing and encouragement to assume a greater leadership role.”

For example, according to Portier, if the American Cancer Society can find the influencers in the Cancer Survivors Network, it can offer these people helpful training services or put them on panels to talk about how to further improve the community. Engaging influencers in this manner will make the community experience better for all users.

But Portier and Greer say that the new metric isn’t quite ready yet, as there is more research they need to do to better understand both positive and negative influence. They also want to determine how many leaders there are in these communities and the different leadership roles they play. They are hopeful, though, that their sentiment analysis work and new influencer metric will help them build a better Cancer Survivors Network – and help others improve their online health communities.


FOR RESEARCHERS: Learn how to apply for a research grant from the American Cancer Society.

Read more about American Cancer Society researchers.