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.

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