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.


Bringing Out the Base

24 11 2007

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best way to spread your message is to target your established base. Those are the people who care the most about what you are saying and the ones most likely to tell their friends.  They are also the ones who are likely to act on your message, bringing it out of the realm of pure rhetoric and into the real world.

Stephan Covey, in the Seven Habits of Hightly Effective People, refers to a similar concept when writing about the Circle of Influence. He asks readers to make a list of the things they care about enough about to expend some of our mental or emotional energy on them. That is the Circle of Concern. Within that list, he suggests making a division between the things they can change and the things they can’t. That is the Circle of Influence.   

“Proactive people focus their efforts on the Circle of Influence,” he writes. “They work on the things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging, and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase.”   

Playing to the base works the same way. The more ideas are reinforced, the more relevence they accumulate. This concept is particularly true in politics. A centrist, Middle-of-the-road candidate may not offend people from either side, but he’s unlikely to inspire them either. Candidates who clearly articulate the views of their supporters have a greater chance of bringing them to the polls. The strategy worked for George W. Bush in the last two elections.

The Washington Post analyzed Bush’s strategy, as guided by his advisor Karl Rove.

Rove has argued that tending to your political base and reaching beyond it are not incompatible. He talks of raising “bold colors” on conservative issues such as tax cuts, the protection of unborn life and the appointment of originalist judges. At the same time, he has advocated policy innovations to appeal to new voters… From 2000 to 2004, this approach excited conservative enthusiasm; boosted President Bush’s support among Hispanics, Asian Americans, Catholics and women; and increased his popular vote total in his reelection bid by 23 percent.

By keeping the base firmly in his corner, Rove had no difficulty finding common ground with other demographic groups. Had he pursued the new voters without taking care of his base, he would have lost both and probably the election as well.


Facebook and ‘Open Source Politics’

5 10 2007

Facebook continues to grow as a mini-web inside the World Wide Web, except that it is clean, easy to use, and free of the excesses associated with Internet anonymity. It is a great platform for marketing events and services on a local level and connecting with like-minded people across the world.

And with about 30 million members and growing, it is perfectly positioned for political activism. According to Wired magazine, activists looking to organize dozens of simultaneous rallies for the people of Myanmar turned to Facebook to spread the news.

Amateur activists and big-league political nonprofit groups find Facebook an easy way to connect citizens around the globe and help them push their collective concerns to the top of politicians’ agendas, a development that marks the beginnings of what might be called “open-source politics.”

“We’re working very closely with the people from Facebook,” says Mark Farmaner, Burma Campaign UK’s acting director. “They’re able to do things that we can’t because we’re a small organization with a small capacity — they’ve been able to mobilize people, and there’s been a division of labor.”

Open source politics, or politics 2.0, helped energize Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and spawned the “netroots” in the blogosphere and on social networking sites. Despite these successes, however, the concept has remained on the fringes of the political word, embraced primarily as an “alternative” approach to activisism partially because of a generation gap in relating to technology and partially because it has appealed mainly to progressive activists. 

But with Facebook’s rocket trajectory sweeping through virtually every segment of the population, the very concept of “mainstream” is evolving before our very eyes.  And organizing political rallies is just the beginning of Facebook activism. The New York Times reported recently on a Facebook-based direct action that saved a popular candy bar from being discontinued.

Users of Facebook, the social networking service, make up for any shortcomings in spelling, grammar and punctuation with their sheer numbers. After nearly 14,000 people joined “bring back Wispa” groups on Facebook, the food conglomerate Cadbury Schweppes announced on Aug. 17 that it would reintroduce the candy bar in October.

Keeping a candy bar in production may not sound like much but it illustrates that nearly anything can be achieved by organizing on Facebook, from the trivial to the crucially important. Indeed, a few weeks later the Times had another story of Facebook activism, this time involving an effort to ban a group accused of hate speech against Muslims. Within days, some 75,000 people joined the effort to block the group.

And that’s what I call open source politics.

Who Are the Influentials?

25 02 2007

A word of mouth campaign is the most most basic and effective way to spread information. People believe their friends’ suggestions about products or services, particularly when the advice is based on personal experience. But even if the advice comes from someone outside our social circle, there is still something seductive about information passed on without ulterior motives. 

The same is true about the spread of ideas. When people talk about something they heard about or read somewhere, their interest in the idea is communicated along with the idea itself. That package makes the idea much stickier – and much more likely to be passed along to other groups of friends. 

The key, then, to spreading any brand or concept lies in finding ways for people to talk about it to their friends.  But not everyone is equally likely to spread the news. Some people – the influentials – are far more likely to form strong opinions and pass them along to anyone who will listen. Those people, according to Louise Rijk, co-founder and Vice-President of Marketing and Sales at Advanced Media Productions, are the 10% who influence the choices of the other 90%.

“They are sitting at the top of the WOMM pyramid and possess usually three main characteristics: larger social networks than the average person, persuasive power and the drive to disseminate product or service information within their expertise,” she wrote. 

Of those three characteristics, the third may be the most important. Today’s influentials are people who are likely to comment on a blog or forward something they like to their e-mail list. They do not have to be persuasive; they simply need to want to push ideas forward. Anyone looking to spread ideas needs to identify the influentials in their field. But that shouldn’t be too hard. Influentials don’t tend to be the types who work behind the scenes.

The important thing is to keep an eye out for them and then supply with sticky ideas they’ll want to spread.