Forest-Fire Marketing

A fantastic article in Fast Company ( Is the Tipping Point Toast? ) by Clive Thompson reports on the viral-spreading research of Duncan Watts. The article itself is getting a lot of attention and rippling through the mediasphere like a viral marketing idea. I highly recommend you read the piece which is full of news, and some picturesque experiments.  Even better is to read Watt’s books. His most recent is the new “Six Degrees.”

The Fast Company piece starts off by reminding us all of the current orthodoxy about viral markets and the flow of trends.  “Big mouths count,” may be the summary. This view has been shaped by Malcom Gladwell’s perennial bestseller “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.” As Thompson recounts:

“What we are really saying,” [Gladwell] writes, “is that in a given process or system, some people matter more than others.” In modern marketing, this idea–that a tiny cadre of connected people triggers trends–is enormously seductive. It is the very premise of viral and word-of-mouth campaigns: Reach those rare, all-powerful folks, and you’ll reach everyone else through them, basically for free. Loosely, this is referred to as the Influentials theory, and while it has been a marketing touchstone for 50 years, it has recently reentered the mainstream imagination via thousands of marketing studies and a host of best-selling books. In addition to The Tipping Point, there was “The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy” by marketing gurus Ed Keller and Jon Berry, as well as the gospel according to PR firms such as Burson-Marsteller, which claims “E-Fluentials” can “make or break a brand.”

Only trouble is, when Watts started modeling the way rumors and email fly around a network he could not replicate the power of influentials. Clive reports:

Why didn’t the Influentials wield more power? With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn’t they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend’s success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend–not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded.

“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.

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.”

Forest Fire[Hr]

This picture of a primed environment ready to be triggered matches more with my own experience. Perhaps we can think of it as “forest-fire marketing.” What marketers should be scouting is the best place and time to start the fire. Despite the common myth, it can be hard to get a forest to burn, if it is not ready. There is an art to starting fires. Of course there is not art to starting a fire when it hasn’t rained in 6 months, it’s 99 out, and there is a 60 mph wind.

I find that there are some people more influential than others, but they by no means form a gating function, nor an igniting function. If they did, they would be harnessed much more deliberately than they are. In fact they would wield tremendous power. If anyone could even pick out which bands, shoes, films, books, colors, bags, songs were going to succeed with any statistical reliability, they would be billionaires. But in fact, influentials aren’t usually right. As Watts says:

Trends aren’t merely hard to predict and engineer–they occur essentially at random.

The real influencers are random sparks, touching off a blaze of pent-up potential. Watts has built his theories on a number of clever experiments. Lately he’s been trying to invent aids to harness the “random sparkers” rather than the influentials, to see if you can at least get a forest to burn when it is ready.  One idea is to create a way for people to see the result of their own marketing.

Typically, people ignore this “share with your friends” pitch. But Watts and Peretti included technology called ForwardTrack, which displays the route the ad travels once you’ve forwarded it. This turned ad forwarding into a piece of social cartography. People would pass the ad specifically to those friends most likely to keep it moving. It became a Facebook-like contest to sign up the most friends.

Whether it works remains to be seen. Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing believes that Watt’s research is aimed at explaining not the runaway hits, but the mediocre successes.

Reading through the piece, it seems to me that Watts is primarily concerned with those ideas that don’t “break out” and swamp the mainstream — if you’re going to have a modestly successful idea, how can you increase that modest success two- or three-fold? It may be that the combination of a hugely influential person; a simple, easy-to-communicate idea and a receptive market can go viral and be on everyone’s lips in a few days. But what if you’ve got a hard-to-communicate, subtle idea and you want to maximize its spread?

Guy Kawasaki, the evengelism-marketing guru who spent a lot of time trying to convert people to the Macintosh says:

How does Watts’ thinking square with evangelism? I don’t see a conflict because evangelism is about “bringing the good news” to everyone and then supporting the people who “get it.” Evangelism is not about sucking up to only people who are famous and self-important. To wit, few Fortune 500 CIOs helped make Macintosh successful. It was unknown artists, designers, hobbyists, and user-group members who made Macintosh successful, and we could have not identified them in advance.

If Watts in correct, then how should this change marketing? Guy has a few suggestions:

    * Spend less time and effort on industry events and other focused PR and marketing that involves sucking up to journalists, analysts, and experts. Spend more time and effort pressing the flesh of real customers. Typically, you won’t meet too many customers at a Ritz Carlton.

    * Try mass marketing because you never know who will be your “accidental influential.” Or, as the saying goes, “Let a hundred flowers blossom” to determine who “gets” your product. Admittedly, the challenge is to find a cost-effective way to do mass marketing.

    * Forget A-list bloggers. Lousy reviews by them cannot tank your product. Great reviews cannot make it successful. Focus on big numbers—any Technorati 1,000,000 blogger can be a channel to reach people. If enough people like your product, the A-list bloggers will have to write about you.

Seth Godin, who wrote the book about viral marketing (“Unleashing the Ideavirus”) responded to Thompson’s article on Watts by declaring markets need both, the influentials and the regular mass market fans. You need word of mouth, and influentials have big mouths.

What should be really clear, though, is that people with big audiences certainly count as one of the people around you. If the guy down the row at work buys a Mac Air, it counts. If Guy buys a Mac Air, it counts just as much (or possibly a bit more). If a kid in school is listening to Ini, it counts. And if you hear HotStepper on a popular radio station, it counts just as much. Since people with big audiences have more ‘friends’ and have more ‘people down the hall’, they have more influence. Not because they count for more, just because they ‘know’ more people.

This is reasonable advice. Usually the answer for any question in the new economy is “all of the above.”  For most cases you’ll need some version of mass marketing AND viral marketing.  You need to reach the random sparkers and the big mouths.

But please read Clive’s piece. It’s very good.


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