Evaluating Stochastic Seeding Strategies in Networks

Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2021.3963

When trying to maximize the adoption of a behavior in a population connected by a social network, it is common to strategize about where in the network to seed the behavior, often with an element of randomness. Selecting seeds uniformly at random is a basic but compelling strategy in that it distributes seeds broadly throughout the network. A more sophisticated stochastic strategy, one-hop targeting, is to select random network neighbors of random individuals; this exploits a version of the friendship paradox, whereby the friend of a random individual is expected to have more friends than a random individual, with the hope that seeding a behavior at more connected individuals leads to more adoption. Many seeding strategies have been proposed, but empirical evaluations have demanded large field experiments designed specifically for this purpose and have yielded relatively imprecise comparisons of strategies. Here we show how stochastic seeding strategies can be evaluated more efficiently in such experiments, how they can be evaluated “off-policy” using existing data arising from experiments designed for other purposes, and how to design more efficient experiments. In particular, we consider contrasts between stochastic seeding strategies and analyze nonparametric estimators adapted from policy evaluation and importance sampling. We use simulations on real networks to show that the proposed estimators and designs can substantially increase precision while yielding valid inference. We then apply our proposed estimators to two field experiments, one that assigned households to an intensive marketing intervention and one that assigned students to an antibullying intervention.

This paper was accepted by Gui Liberali, Management Science Special Section on Data-Driven Prescriptive Analytics.

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