If you’ve spent time with anyone in the ad and marketing world over the last few years, you’ve probably heard ‘viral’ so often you want to throat punch the next guy who throws it out there like it’s an option to buy. Same deal with WoM (or ‘word of mouth’ for those of us who enjoy English free of needless acronyms). There’s simply no way to make virals work ala a sure fire formula, but that’s not stopping anyone from trying.
Part of the resistance to acknowledging the obvious lay at the feet of The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s expansion on the idea that trends can be laid at the feet of a class of influential elites whom the rest of us must follow like puppies. Take a second and think: “Do I know anyone who’s involved in marketing and advertising? Is there a particular personality trait that individual might possess that the above theory might possibly cater to? Perhaps a smug sense of inflated self-worth and culture-savvy and/or the belief that their work is going to BLOW YOUR MIND?” Just a thought.
As you can see, I don’t put a lot of stock in the theory. Neither does Duncan Watts, a sociologist and research scientist for Yahoo whose work seems to slam the idea of an influential trendsetter class right into the ground. Watts’ work (in both computer and live models) suggests that, as most of us realized long ago, that trends are essentially random phenomenon which succeed or fail largely due to timing, quality, and how receptive the public is to an idea at any given time.
Ed Keller (who penned another book on the Tipping Point theory entitled ‘The Influentials’), doesn’t find much to like in Watts’ work, but allow me to pinpoint one particular example that does more to display how off-base The Tipping Point theory really is:
“The data are crystal clear,” Keller adds, when I call him up. “[Influentials] give and receive advice more. If I had $100 to spend, and I could spend it focusing on the mass market or I could put some chips on a group that could get me somewhere between two and five times as much energy with word of mouth, well, they’re going to get my message out more quickly and more efficiently.” He points to a recent example: Before Nintendo launched its hugely successful Wii video-game console last year, it handed out thousands of demo units to “mom influencers” around the country, creating a “built-in base of evangelists.“
Yes, the Wii became the fastest selling console ever not because it was a revolutionary gaming device aimed at families instead of hardcore gamers, not because it launched with a groundbreaking entry in one of the most popular game titles ever (Zelda), and certainly not because it cost nearly $350 cheaper than its rival (which launched with fuck all for must-have titles), but because a handful of cool people liked it.
One word: Bullshit.
And we wonder why gaming advertising is so bloody awful. Or why commercials (like say, that horrid H&R Bloch spot with the vicious woman berating her obviously de-balled husband for buying tax software*) are so uniformly terrible? Or why 99% of ‘viral’ attempts made by most companies aren’t fit to lick the pastrami scented sweat from a Dom DeLouis’ Cannonball Run gag reel? You just don’t get it, Madison Avenue. And at this rate, you never will. Most importantly, you just don’t get us.
What matters? Content. Quality content will always rise, while crap (while often getting undue attention) typically settles to the middle. Timing. It’s 2008. You do ‘subservient’ ANYTHING, and you deserve a boot to the crotch. But there are any number of bands, directors, writers, artists, etc who can tell you that there’s more than a fair share of luck in tapping into the right reaction/sentiment at the right time. I know this is scary for you, but this is important: You can’t change that, and you certainly can’t bottle it sell it like just another media buy (my apologies to Scaramouch from YesButNoButYes for appropriately that last phrase).
Interestingly enough, what Duncan Watts’ research suggest is exactly what marketing has been running away from for the last 5 years: Mass marketing works. Make it accessible, aim it broadly, and you’ll do fine. Micro-demographics and niche targeting aimed at cultivating an underground swell that breaks wide is most often going to go no further than your seed point.