Thursday, October 16, 2008

Better than Viral?

A few days ago an article in iMediaConnection entitled “Tips for Media Seeding” caught my attention. It questioned our ability to make most marketing campaigns viral—not news to many of us. Yes, there are some exceptions; Burger King’s subservient chicken has been around since 2004 and you can still interact with it. It’s important to note that this is entertainment, with minimal promotion for Burger King.

This quote from the article captures the essence of the “big seed” approach:

"As an alternative to traditional viral marketing, agencies can employ a big-seed distribution strategy. In doing so, a planner assumes a low pass-along rate for any piece of content. To counteract the effects of the low pass-along rate, the planner makes efforts through paid placements, syndication or sponsorships to grow the number of initial seed users exposed to the piece of content. Thus, instead of relying on a small number of seed users, the planner relies on a large number of guaranteed exposures."influencers, s

To prove their point the authors give a case history in which Sega of America produced 4 videos. The first one was “seeded;” read that paid advertising and sponsorships were used to promote the video. The other three had no promotion. The first was viewed 797,000 times, more views than the other three combined.

That means the advertising reached “influentials” who passed it on, right? I started looking, and the consensus seems to be that it’s not that easy on the Internet. Consider the statement in a recent post that everyone can be an influential at the appropriate time. There’s a lot of research going on; much of it coming out of the Collective Dynamics Group at Columbia University. Their working paper version of the HBR article referred to in iMediaConnection makes an important statement:

“based on our results we would go as far as to suggest that in focusing on the properties of a few “special” individuals, the influentials hypothesis is in some important respects a misleading model for social change. Under most conditions, we would argue, cascades do not succeed because of a few highly influential individuals influencing everyone else, but rather on account of a critical mass of easily influenced individuals influencing other easy-to-influence people” ( p. 34)

In other words, the old opinion leadership/influencials model that we all learned in either a sociology or marketing course is questionable in the content ecosystem of the web. Cascasdes (of information) can start in many places.

Here’s another lengthy, statistical treatment from the same researchers. There’s a lot of discussion of these ideas in the blogosphere also, some referenced below. I’ll plan to do another post soon and talk about metrics, because the measurement issues are key.

An Edelman white paper gives some of the easiest-to-digest information. This is the model they propose; it covers both influencers and the influenced. It doesn’t give approaches to identifying either, but it does work on the hypothesis that people use information to make sense of and maintain control over their worlds. That’s all of us, and the Internet has given us a bigger scope for our information search. They also seem to accept the view that context is critical. In this view influencers attract attention, engage others, and influence them to take action. That’s what we all want influencers to do for us. The influenced identify interest in a subject, fulfill their need for information, review that information, and then take action. Both make sense, especially if you accept the argument that it’s not a small group of so-called influentials, but crowds of people who like to influence and be influenced, depending on the context/situation.

That’s interesting, but it doesn’t leave us with any directions for marketing action. Valeria Maltoni’s Conversation Agent blog had a lengthy post with many links early this year. Her conclusions come from reviewing several sources and make sense to me. She recommends:

1. Focus less on who people influence and more on how people are influenced.
2. Think more about networks, and network structure, rather than treating everyone as behaving independently (group dynamics).
3. Move away from the idea that buzz can be engineered to achieve some pre-established outcome, and get better at measuring and reacting to buzz that arises naturally (observation from context).

There’s also an interesting, if a bit disjoined, live-blogging post from a September conference on the Mashraqi blog. He has some good recommendations also.

I keep coming back to the idea that this is a dialog going on in social networks or communities (are those the same thing? I think so). As marketers, we can’t just single out a few opinion leaders and expect them to do the job for us. The new Crest Weekly Whitening Paste seems to have taken that approach. I keep watching to see when it comes out of its “quiet phase” and begins to engage in active promotion. The only recent action in the blogosphere I can find via a Technorati search (lots of noise in those searches) is coupons for the other Crest Whitening products. Stay tuned.

It looks to me as if making a campaign viral, even assuming good content, is going to require several planned steps. Does that make sense?

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