Viral marketing is an epidemiological metaphor for how ideas get spread in a connected world. As marketers, we strive to create pandemics to "affect" people instead of "infect" people. The increasing prominence of the social web provides many ways to effectively scale and spread our messages and ideas in much the same way we fear swine flu could have global implications. You're most likely already aware of the immense potential on the internet for your company and your brand, but it's likely that you aren't sure how to tap into it. You hear buzzwords like viral marketing, social marketing, buzz marketing, viral videos, consumer engagement, and destination websites, but these words do little to provide the perspective you need to formulate an approach.
Whether we are discussing the Swine Flu (to infect) or Susan Boyle (to affect), the math around network nodes and network effectiveness gives us new perspective as to how the diffusion of ideas occurs. We live in exponential times and hopefully this will explain it and add some new perspective. Here's how to think about the diffusion of ideas and infectious disease.
Network Effect: Public Events vs. Social Computing
The swine flu spread from Mexico into the US via infected carriers of the virus. Containment efforts centered around closing of public meeting places and putting travel restrictions on the airlines. Public meeting places and airports are "network nodes" in this situation. Infected people come into contact with others who then go to other "nodes" infecting others. Here you have an exponential diffusion of the virus creating the possibility of a pandemic with no borders and global implications.
Susan Boyle's phenomenal video performance spread from a television show which affected a couple of million people. These people became affected carriers of the performance. The video got uploaded to YouTube, a "social network node." Affected carriers spread it to their own "personal network nodes." Here, there are no containment efforts occurring. Affected people come into contact with others. Personal influence with others fuels it's spread. There are no barriers to creating a global pandemic to all connected people (approx. 1.2 billion people on the planet).
Empiric Laws Create Exponential Viral Effectiveness
So what does the environment look like for marketers and how can we model possible outcomes to be more effective in choosing social channels and target nodes? Let's review 3 right now.
Sarnoff's law is what traditional marketers generally consider when calculating reach. It is a linear, mono logic communication path that is the least effective model to consider when trying to go viral. If we look at how the swine flu spreads here, imagine that there are 4 people in a room where nobody leaves - ever. This is completly contained environment for an infectious disease. Nothing to worry about here folks
Metcalf's law describes how the web diffused ideas in the 1990's - Yahoo Classifieds, Email, etc. It describes how peers connect one-on-one in an environment where many others do as well. While diffusion occurs, it is not a viable construct for creating pandemics. The CDC would consider this a localized swine flu outbreak. No need to panic. It would still be relatively easy to contain. Susan Boyle does not have much of a chance here either.
Reed's law helps us understand the environment where people can create groups. This exponential law creates increasing returns as the scale increases, which has surprisingly effective spread of results with regard to viral diffusion. Let's runs some numbers.
When we look at what happens if we make N=100 (a small number when you think about it in global terms) in each of the 3 scenarios, here's what we come up with:
Now we understand the math behind diffusion in a connected world. Small numbers become big numbers without regard to constraints.
Convergence Of Everything
In the case of Susan Boyle, as well as the spread of the swine flu, each one of these diffusion mechanisms are in place. This, to me, suggests that traditional marketing principles still play an important part of the viral marketing mix. For traditional marketers, it helps to understand the new dynamics we all work in and keep an open mind about how things continue to progress moving forward. Just as viral diffusion occurs, these principles apply to all communication, collaboration and coordination activities. We really are living in exponential times folks. It's gonna be a crazy ride. I guarantee it!