Interactive Marketing Strategist – George Benckenstein Interactive Marketing Strategist & Flat World Evangelist musing about how digital is changing the paradigm of human culture.


Swine Flu, Susan Boyle And The Network Multiplier Effect

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

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

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

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!

Comments (28) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Very interesting! Thank You!

  2. Kinda scary and exciting at the same time.

  3. So by utilizing Reed's Law, the idea then would be to connect with as many people that are already "connected" by as many means of communication as possible. "Uploading" to Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Digg, etc. so that the most pre-connected people get the "info" and if presented well, pass it on to their connections, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

    I've seen many people try to explain this in many different ways, but this is the clearest and most precise image to date. Thanks. ;-)

  4. Very well explained and presented. ..Now I just got to figure out on how to use this knowledge to make my business expand exponentialy. If anyone could give me some Ideas that would be very

  5. I've long sought an "immunization" from the subversive nature of viral marketing. While Doc Searls said that, "Markets are conversations," Chris Locke reminds us of the inverse corollary that, "Conversations are not markets." If you seek to only to gain influence -and truly be influenced- you're missing out on so much.

  6. my last statement should have read, If you seek only to gain influence -and *NOT* truly be influenced- you're missing out on so much.

  7. So glad for blogchat and finding your blog. This is brilliantly lays out the basic principles. You can see Reed's law, or something like it, at work if you have a LinkedIn. Just under your network numbers they tell you something like:

    321 Connections links you to 4,981,400+ professionals

    I look forward to getting to know you better, I have added your blog to my blogroll.

  8. George, affect people with virus is the solution to win the infections … You are a genious, allow me to share my thinkings with you.
    The doorway to future is security and none other could be better than teaching virus to recognize their own malignity and get read of them before they get to us.

  9. An interesting overview of the viral effect. Reminds me of Malcom Gladwell's mavens from The Tipping Point. I am doing a lot of thinking around convincing companies to consider social networking as part of the brand comms policies and being able to demonstrate numbers in this fashion makes a very compelling argument.

  10. May I modify Metcalf's Law when dealing with Twitter? I'm seeing about a 30% spambot rate in followers. I think Metcalf's Law is spot on, but doesn't provide a discount for the spammers. Thus, I propose a 30% reduction, which would look as such: n(n-1)/2 * 0.7

  11. Thank you for this wonderful explanation. Efficient tools for communication, collaboration and coordination, this is the most important thing to retain about the new technology. This is also the reason why the future belongs to the multitude. This goes beyond marketing guys. This new technology will affect culture, creation, production, it will revolutionize society, it will make it more democratic and more inclusive. Networks will dethrone centralized organizations based on the command and control paradigm. And the individual HAS a place within a network, is more valued than within a vertical.

  12. And when the discussion fails, when the "talking points" fall flat despite a network designed to imprint them on society, where does the impetus for transmission reside?

  13. I am sorry my previous post was not focused. I agree with a reduction due to spam. With parasitic spam a constant component, the system evolves "natural" coping mechanisms. Although unlikely, the coping mechanisms can become insufficient. In the long term, the networking paradigm becomes "tired"; loses viability in the demands of a quotidian environment. Nonetheless, viral affective potential matures and becomes honed in a more restricted application.

    • I would agree with you in a general sense. Which is why viruses and messages have a lifespan. And if involvement is only to push out "talkiing points" then your network really isn't supporting a bi-directional conversation. This happens in real life as well. We all have friendships that wane for whatever reason. Apply this to networks, you will have people entering and exiting your ecosystem all the time. Real conversation as opposed to "talking points" has the potential to multiply unfettered. This does not minimize that the need to reinvent ever stops or that relationships of any source don't have a lifetime. But remember that wherever there is death, there is a rebirth in any ecosystem creating a continuum with no bounds (theoretically that is).

  14. Few of us engage in real conversation, but it is the ultimate horizon/destination per spinchange above. I must have responded emotionally above to a Koch enterprise. ( LOL ) Yes, viruses do have a lifespan, and opportunities/mechanisms for rebirth are always present; i.e. Susan Boyle

  15. Somehow we were alarmed by the swine flu that has affected many people in different parts of the world. And because they attack the disease with symptoms similar to flu and the outbreak occurred and the disease began to spread around the world, is simply normal for people to worry and think s safety.

  16. The improving popularity of the public web provides many methods to successfully range and propagate our information and concepts in much the same way we worry h1n1 virus could have international implications. So prevention is still better than cure

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