Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Viral Marketing and the Short Tail

Viral marketing has very little to do with marketing – or so I argued in my last post. I also suggested that we've done a pretty poor job of defining what the term “vital marketing” even means.

Being viral is mostly a function of a product or idea, not of the tools and tricks employed by marketing pros for promotion. That said, being viral is also about the vectors that transmit and pass on information about the product or idea – that is, the people involved. Said another way, certain people are receptive to an innovation, others are not. And some people are better equipped to retransmit and amplify the viral effect – the are better connected themselves, and better respected – and are thus more coveted targets for viral marketing.

This all has echoes of an old mass communications theory – adoption of innovation, championed by Everett Rogers. He's the guy that gave us familiar terms like Early Adopter and Late Majority to describe groups of people that characteristically are receptive to new ideas and are viewed by others as trusted sources of information.

Many of the today's models for viral marketing focus on the medium – Twitter, Facebook and so on. This is a mistake. Some enlightened folks start by looking at the product or idea itself. Very few also consider how audience targeting can influence viral marketing.

There's a lot of chatter in marketing circles about long tails – a statistical reference to the fact that the total sales of relatively unpopular items often outweigh the combined sales of very popular blockbuster items. An oft-cited example is book sales at Amazon, where cumulative niche sales of The Bagpipe Maintenance Book and its ilk far outstrip Potteresque blockbusters. If the warehouse and distribution costs can be managed, then marketing to the long tail can be very lucrative.

The reverse logic applies to viral marketing – we are short tail marketing. To see what I mean, consider the frequency distribution of Twitter followers, Facebook 'friends' and Facebook 'likes', all of which are more-or-less classic power distributions (that is, the kind of distribution people refer to when they think about long tails and marketing):

Ask yourself: who do you want to target when you consider attempting viral marketing? The answer, of course, is the most influential, and all other things being equal this equates to the very few people with the most followers, likes or friends – the short beginnings of the distributions in the graphs. (This effect is also self-fulfilling – we tend to crowd around the already crowded, follow those that have a lot of followers. We see this effect in social media and we see it in high schools, politics and the entertainment industry.)

Of course when I say we should target based on influence I'm stating the very obvious, but this all seems lost on many marketing pros when they think about viral marketing and new media.

The arguments get even more complicated if there's any real audience targeting to be considered. The undifferentiated masses that haunt social media aren't a target for anyone unless you happen to have a social media product to hawk. For the rest of us, we're interested in influencers and buyers, and we usually have some ability to describe these folks in at least broad demographic ways. Virality only matters if it impacts these few. But even if we're interested in created gross awareness we should think about the short tail.

Friday, May 6, 2011

What is Viral Marketing?

When we think of cloud computing we don't envision winged mainframes sitting angelic on fluffy cumulus, yet too often in marketing a clever metaphor morphs into a definition, leaving behind empty buzzwords. Such is the case with viral marketing.

What is viral marketing really? Go to Wikipedia and you will leave none-the-wiser; the page has become the battleground of an ongoing dispute about who originated the term, but provides little insight into what it really means. Other attempts at a definition vier off at two tangents – either getting lost in epidemiology or waxing rhapsodic about social media. Or we revert to the “I know when I see it” school, which ladles out a stream of ex post facto cases-in-point that illustrate the effect without enlightening us about what is taking place.

Arguably viral marketing is nothing new. If you look at early research into the effects and efficacy of propaganda, the mechanisms by which mass media impact ideas, or the ways that innovative ideas are adopted, they all suggests ways that messages and ideas are disseminated through a population. The concept of viral marketing is really a restatement of these old theories, adapted to the new communication tools of today.

A good theory and definition of viral marketing would provide an explanation based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning. It could be tested and confirmed and would help explain and predict the way some markets work or how some products become popular. It would build on what we already know from propaganda, mass media and public relations. What we've got instead is a lot of sound a fury every time a YouTube video gets a boatload of views, without any reasoning or insight.

At least, that's what I thought until I came across this blog post by David Skok. David applies some simple math along with a useful concept – the K factor – and provides an abstract model of how viral effects work. He also derives some very useful variables to consider, and some principles describing what makes viral marketing viral. To take one example:

Virality is not a marketing strategy that can be executed by the marketing department. It has to be built into your product right from the beginning. This is a function that needs to be thought through by the product designers and developed by the engineers.

This is not how most people think and at first it appears counterintuitive, but he's right. Marketing may play a role in amplifying a viral effect, or reducing the time cycles on virality, but it can rarely be the prime mover in making a product “go viral.” There really is no substitute for a good idea well executed.