Viral Marketing – Is it about people, ideas or context?
Is the tipping point toast? This is the title of a rather interesting article on fastcompany magazine.
There is a lot of thinking and research going on in order to find out, what will trigger a viral (marketing) explosion of any sort. Is it the people, the context or the actual idea? Or would it be a mixture of all? Most people will have read Malcolm Gladwells „Tipping Point“ or similar literature. In his book, all three are important, yet most marketers have started to focus too narrowly on the people part of the equation.
Now Gareth points me to an article to that article on fast company magazine. And it seems from this work that the ‚who‘ is not really what matters; instead it’s the context and, most importantly, the idea itself that matters the most when it comes to the spread of new things. Like in a forrest fire, where nobody would expect the person causing it to be highly influential or the match extremely flammable. Instead it is crystal clear that the forrest was ready for it…
„If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can,“ Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it’s less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public’s mood. Sure, there’ll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts’s terminology, an „accidental Influential.“
Perhaps the problem with viral marketing is that the disease metaphor is misleading. Watts thinks trends are more like forest fires: There are thousands a year, but only a few become roaring monsters. That’s because in those rare situations, the landscape was ripe: sparse rain, dry woods, badly equipped fire departments. If these conditions exist, any old match will do. „And nobody,“ Watts says wryly, „will go around talking about the exceptional properties of the spark that started the fire.“
Duncan Watts, the originator of this not really new, yet still untrendy thought (I guess the context still isn’t right), calculated this with computer models:
That may be oversimplifying it a bit, but last year, Watts decided to put the whole idea to the test by building another Sims-like computer simulation. He programmed a group of 10,000 people, all governed by a few simple interpersonal rules. Each was able to communicate with anyone nearby. With every contact, each had a small probability of „infecting“ another. And each person also paid attention to what was happening around him: If lots of other people were adopting a trend, he would be more likely to join, and vice versa. The „people“ in the virtual society had varying amounts of sociability–some were more connected than others. Watts designated the top 10% most-connected as Influentials; they could affect four times as many people as the average Joe. In essence, it was a virtual society
So, a computer model, a rather static even, I would assume, is behind this? Not sure if I want to really believe in the validity of this approach. But hey, I am a marketer – and it says in the article that us marketers are amongst the heaviest doubters of this research.
Mind you, Watts does agree that some people are more instrumental than others. He simply doesn’t think it’s possible to will a trend into existence by recruiting highly social people. The network effects in society, he argues, are too complex–too weird and unpredictable–to work that way. If it were just a matter of tipping the crucial first adopters, why can’t most companies do it reliably?
True, damn it, very true. I wish there would be a reliable mechanism, of course I do. We do try to design built viral campaigns along the learnings of past campaigns, because that is the only thing we have.
As Watts points out, viral thinkers analyze trends after they’ve broken out. „They start with an existing trend, like Hush Puppies, and they go backward until they’ve identified the people who did it first, and then they go, ‚Okay, these are the Influentials!'“ But who’s to say those aren’t just Watts’s accidental Influentials, random smokers who walked, unwittingly, into a dry forest? East Village hipsters were wearing lots of cool things in the fall of 1994. But, as Watts wondered, why did only Hush Puppies take off? Why didn’t their other clothing choices reach a tipping point too?
What you can do, and that is part of the conclusion of that article, is to offer a mechanism to spread your ideas to every single person who might actually be able to send it on to at least one other person. Doesn’t sound like a great strategy, but if your goal is maximum spread, why focus only on so called influencers – i.e. focus too narrow. Spread to everyone, as far and wide as your own resources allow you to. Start with the people you consider influencers, granted – you have to start somewhere, but once you’re done with those, include everyone else, too.