How I Resisted a Media Virus

10 05 2013

berger.rThe new book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, covers one of my favorite topics – how ideas spread through word-of-mouth. Its author, Jonah Berger is marketing professor with considerable chops, and I’ve listened to him on numerous podcasts, read articles he’s written, and interviews he’s given. I’ve gone to his site and looked at the extra material he’s collected to go with the book. I’ve even downloaded a sample of the book from Amazon to my Kindle, and found it extremely engaging.

I really want to read the book. But…I simply can’t bring myself to plop down the money to buy it.

I’ve been tempted over and over, and somehow I’ve managed to resist the temptation. First, there is the magnitude of the marketing campaign – Berger seems to be hitting me from every direction and in every possible way. Normally,I would consider that to be a positive, especially when it comes to books about marketing. But in this case, the standards are different. A book about how to use word-of-mouth should use word-of-mouth as a major part of it’s marketing.

Instead, the overwhelming and slick campaign feels more like a hard sell, and my natural defenses against that are coming to the surface. I can practically feel myself not wanting to reward the campaign by contributing financially to its success.

Second, I’m less than 100% convinced by the premise of the book. The samples I’ve read so far give me a good overview of the approach Berger is using. He identifies six specific reasons why information spreads. In his media appearances and articles I’ve been exposed to, he talks a great deal about social capital. That idea is very strong and useful. No arguments about that one.

But he also refers to another way things spread, which he calls “triggers,” and uses it to explain the runaway success of Rebecca Black’s song “Friday.” This is where I feel let down. According to Berger, the reason the song hit it big, and then got even bigger, was because of the name. Every Friday, people would be reminded about the song and views on YouTube would spike.

It may be true that people would look for the song on Friday more than any other day, but it hardly explains why people ever bothered to look for it in the first place. Perhaps the book chapter gives a more detailed explanation of how a song so reviled became so popular. After all, there are so many songs uploaded to YouTube every day. How did this one song break out? But I suspect that if that information were part of the book, it would have been at least alluded to in the article as well.

That’s not to say that book isn’t worth reading. In fact, I’m ready to consume almost any media that involves Berger discussing the book’s contents. I’m even looking up the academic papers he’s written that serve as the scientific basis for the book. But I don’t want to feel like a sucker. And there is something about the way the book is coming across the makes me worried that that’s exactly how I’ll feel if I purchase the book.

And even though the book is Contagious, that’s enough for me to keep the virus at bay. I know I don’t fall into the majority on this one. The book is still on the New York Times best-seller list, more than two months after its publication.

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Does an Idea Spread Like a Virus or a Forest Fire?

4 02 2008

Conventional word-of-mouth wisdom sees information spreading like a virus, infecting the masses through a small group of influential individuals. Bring a few “influentials” on board with your product or idea, the concept goes, and they will spread it for you on their own through their large social networks and natural enthusiasm. 

The virus model itself spread like a virus across the field of marketing. It sits at the heart of popular marketing books such as The Tipping Point and The Anatomy of Buzz, and has spawned a whole new field of marketing, called viral marketing.

But according to network-theory scientist Duncan Watts, the virus model, and especially its reliance on influentials, fails to account for important aspects of how information travels. Influentials may increase the number of people exposed to an idea, but there is little evidence to show they are vital to the start of any trend.

A better model, he suggests, is that of a forest fire. Thousands of fires begin in forests each year, but only a few grow into massive blazes. The key factors that determine whether the fires spread, he said, are environmental – whether the forest is ready to ignite. If the earth is dry and the wind is blowing in a favorable direction, any match could could create a major catastrophe. But the same match dropped on a rainy day would have no effect at all.