Monday, February 4, 2008

Does Viral Marketing Work?

This is interesting. It's an assertion that the "Influentials" theory, where you can virally market an idea or product by targeting a very small number of highly connected early adopters, doesn't really work.
As Watts argues, there are a lot of ways an Influential could convert the masses. Merely talking to a friend once could infect her with an idea. Or it might take several conversations. Or maybe Influentials are so persuasive they're like trend vampires, and each victim they bite becomes hyperpersuasive too. Depending on how you define the specific mechanics of influence, you'd get totally different types of epidemics--or maybe none at all. But gurus of the Influentials theory never directly clarify these mechanics.

"All they'll ever say," Watts insists, is that a) there are people who are more influential than others, and b) they are disproportionately important in getting a trend going.

That may be oversimplifying it a bit, but last year, Watts decided to put the whole idea to the test by building another Sims-like computer simulation. He programmed a group of 10,000 people, all governed by a few simple interpersonal rules. Each was able to communicate with anyone nearby. With every contact, each had a small probability of "infecting" another. And each person also paid attention to what was happening around him: If lots of other people were adopting a trend, he would be more likely to join, and vice versa. The "people" in the virtual society had varying amounts of sociability--some were more connected than others. Watts designated the top 10% most-connected as Influentials; they could affect four times as many people as the average Joe. In essence, it was a virtual society run--in a very crude fashion--according to the rules laid out by thinkers like Gladwell and Keller.

Watts set the test in motion by randomly picking one person as a trendsetter, then sat back to see if the trend would spread. He did so thousands of times in a row.

The results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion.

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.

Maybe the only thing that really matters is Sturgeon's Law...

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