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Monday, Jan. 28, 2008 at 6:57 am

Wasting Money Targeting Influentials? Another Tip…

By Jeffrey Eisenberg
January 28th, 2008

word of mouth influenceI’ve never been a huge fan of Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, because it oversimplifies how ideas spread. I intuitively knew that idea spreading was more complicated than that. In the February 2008 issue of Fast Company there’s an interesting article that I think provides additional context for understanding viral marketing: “Is the Tipping Point Toast? — Marketers spend a billion dollars a year targeting influentials. Duncan Watts says they’re wasting their money.”

Here’s just a small excerpt:

In the past few years, Watts–a network-theory scientist who recently took a sabbatical from Columbia University and is now working for Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) –has performed a series of controversial, barn-burning experiments challenging the whole Influentials thesis. He has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

“It just doesn’t work,” Watts says, when I meet him at his gray cubicle at Yahoo Research in midtown Manhattan, which is unadorned except for a whiteboard crammed with equations. “A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There’s no there there.”

And this is not, he argues, mere academic whimsy. He has developed a new technique for propagating ads virally, which can double or even quadruple the reach of an ordinary online campaign by harnessing the pass-around power of everyday people–and ignoring Influentials altogether.

Not everyone appreciates the mind bomb Watts has tossed into their midst. He says one music executive pronounced his work “bullshit” on the spot. But a growing group of marketers believes Watts is radically altering the way companies attempt to produce trends. “He is changing the way people think about the way we communicate,” raves Robert Barocci, president of the Advertising Research Foundation. “He’s one of the best thinkers in the industry today.” But is Watts right?

Whether you agree or not, the article is worthwhile reading for every marketer. Sneeze all over us and let us know what you think about Watts’ ideas.

Does it change your mind at all about how viral marketing works?

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Comments (7)

  1. Who knows if he’s right? All I can say is that it works for me and my clients. :) Thanks for the tip, I’ll go read now.

  2. After reading the excerpt, one thing struck me: is Watts is saying that trendiness is based on randomness (unpredictable and patternless)? or is it based on chaos (unpredictable but with pattern)? If it’s random chance, such as the turn of a fair roulette wheel, then all “systems” for betting on that wheel have no effect on the expected outcome. But another way of saying that, from an optimists’ point of view, is that such a system for betting is also no worse than any other.

    But if he supposing a chaotic system, as seems the case, then he may end up proving what he initially appeared to have disproven: that in fact there are Influencers — just not the ones we might pre-characterize that way — and that it’s not a finite discrete set of them but more of “straw that broke the camel’s back” approach (that is, that there’s some point — possibly indeterminable — at which the effect kicks in but no way to know a priori what the point is and that it changes in a structure unpredictable way. That’s classic Chaos theory.

  3. Truly fascinating stuff, Jeff.

    Yet, I’m finding a huge flaw in Watts’s thinking. Take the following passage:

    “Why didn’t the Influentials wield more power? With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn’t they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend’s success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend–not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. And in fact, when Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone’s odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.

    ‘If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can,’ Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it’s less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public’s mood.”

    Isn’t it blindingly obvious to most people that influential people are not influential because they reach more people but because they are more persuasive with the people they do reach. In terms of the study you would have to model this by making your simulated people more susceptible to imitate trends that are passed onto them by influentials than they would be for trends started by non-influentials. This is loosely analogous to Roy William’s idea of frequency vs. reach: do you want to reach 40 times more people or do you want to be 40 times more successful at influencing the people you do reach?

    This far more accurately models how people actually behave. If a dork does something new or weird, it’s likely to be seen as dorky. But if a cool person does something new or weird, it’s more likely to be seen as cool. Of course, if the idea or new thing is blindingly and obviously cool, then even a dork could start it and everyone would follow (eventually). At that point, it’s not a matter of influentials increasing the reach of the trend per se, but of speeding up the adoption cycle.

    Now take this passage:

    “No researcher, he points out–including Keller–ever analyzes interactions between specific Influentials and the friends they’re supposedly influencing; no one observes influence in action.”

    That’s really not true. For one, Aristotle did a fabulous job at detailing exactly what makes influential people influential.


  4. Hmmm, interesting stuff, but it’s all getting a bit complex for me.

    My take on buyer behaviour has always been that different people buy different things at different times in different places for different reasons – it’s what makes practicing marketing hard.

    Applying this to the influencer argument : no one person can influence all folk on every product, on every occasion, on every puchase. Therefore the influencer’s influence is limited to limited situations [there must be a name for that type of sentence?].

    Putting too much reliance on influencers is to take a chance on their sphere of authority – but then again, isn’t that segmentation?

  5. Hmmm… after reading the article, I didn’t see it so much as an indictment of The Tipping Point but instead that marketers are flawed when they focus on just one of the book’s components–the Law of the Few (influencers).

    To help spread a message, I believe the other two components rise in importantance, that the message fits within the Context of the social group I’m targeting and that the message is Sticky (easy-to-understand, easy-to-believe & easy-to-tell). If I can do these two well, relying solely on the influencers becomes less important.

  6. Complex is one way to put it. There is science to everything but also tactics that influence the human element.

    Lots of good content on email contact targeting, newsletter creation and direction, marketing tips and content creation at

  7. The company I work for has experimented with spreading ideas virally through ‘well-connected’ people as well – our results vary dramatically though. I think one major under valued component is the industry or nature of the message that is being spread.

    I think its best to target both if possible, then assess the results and adapt as you go along.

    Thanks for the article, I trust you as an authoritive source about online marketing and always look forward to your newsletters.

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Jeffrey Eisenberg, founder of FutureNow, is a professional marketing speaker and the co-author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling books Call to Action and Waiting For Your Cat to Bark. You can friend him on Facebook.

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