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The Net Takeaway: Make It Viral?


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Make It Viral? · 09/25/2007 12:07 PM, Marketing

Folks keep asking me how they can “make things viral”. That’s a somewhat silly question, but advertisers still believe that they can control people’s action a bit too much.

Here’s a somewhat different way to look at all this viral stuff. Remember, way back, when you learned about conditioning in your PSYC 101 class? There were 2 kinds: Classical and Operant.

Classical conditioning involved presenting a stimulus and trying to get a response. You “rewarded” or “reinforced” the correct response (or behavior), with the goal being to get an association between the stimulus and the response. When that association was in place, you could show the stimulus, and the response would happen automatically, even without the reward. You’ve been waiting for me to mention it, so yes, this was the one with Pavlov’s drooling dog.

Operant conditioning focuses more on the reward part. This model doesn’t actually need a stimulus; it assumes that the behavior will exhibit on its own, and you reward the behavior when you see it. But you can vary the pattern, size and type of rewards to create faster or more long lasting learning. This was the B. F. Skinner work, and its worth reading about his many contributions to the world, from attempts to create world peace to the “Air Crib” at Wikipedia’s B. F. Skinner entry.

So compare these: One involves creating a stimulus and trying to get people to take action on it. This might be akin to creating a video, pushing it everyone’s face, and expecting people to forward it. This, btw, is how most people try to make things viral: They spread it from left to right, manually, and hope somewhere, somehow, it sticks. But how do you reward the person who does choose to send it? How do you associate your stimuli with the desired action (“Wow! An advertiser created video evoking hip irony in a self-effacing way! I must forward it at once!”)? Well, actually, its pretty difficult, hence the many failures. If you want to get technical, there are all sorts of issues such as stimuli recognition, reward association, the need for repetition, fatigue, etc. But you don’t need all that research to guess that this type of manipulation has lots of failure points, the most obvious being the authenticity, the clear “manipulation” of the whole thing. And once its spread all over, its hard to create the proper reward experience (which I describe below).

Ok, now look at the operant variant: You create what you are going to create, and if people do forward it, you reward them somehow. But Wait! Don’t give them points, money, or other aspects of material goods. That bribe will convert a potential reward into a punishment (no, not a negative reinforcement; that’s when you stop the pain to create pleasure, not create more pain). Why? Again, its relevance and authenticity (and cognitive dissonance): if you are rewarding me for doing this, then I’m not doing it for myself, I’m getting paid. And that’s not cool.

No, the trick is to evoke a sense of peer and internal reward: The sense of being the “supplier of that which is cool”. Remember, you don’t expect everyone to be the “early adopter”... but everyone has a group for which they are the “cool finder”, that mailing list they send cool stuff. You want to provide content that allows someone to experience the “I sent the cool thing before my friends had heard about it”.

That internal reinforcement will do more long lasting good than any material bribe for sharing. The initial joy of “this one’s pretty cool” is compounded by the “I’m the spreader!”. The work, therefore, is in making something actually cool (hint: break all your “rules” and don’t worry about what might work, consider it all an investment in learning).

Now, you might ask, how is this helping my brand? Well, small group cool finders (aka influencers, etc.) are filters, who spread authenticity and selection criteria. If they choose to share, then your brand is imbued with their halo. Again, no direct reward necessary or desired.

(To be clear, I am differentiating from rewarding small core dissemination groups. I am all for giving goodies out to my beta testers, or to my early fans, or to those who sacrifice their time out of love of my brand/product/band/service/whatever. But keep it relevant, authentic, low ebay-resellability, and you’ve got the right model).

So, make it viral? Fine. You make it so cool that people want to send it, and it’ll make itself viral. The marketer/agency/media site’s job is to make sure that it’s available, searchable, findable, leakable, and shareable. Viral things are like drugs in that they can be addicting for a while (Digg sucks up way too much of my day)... but unlike drugs, when you “push” too hard, you actually lose customers.

(Yes, that last simile sucked. I’ll find a better one later).

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