I’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?