Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Notes from Viral Marketing Presentation at Science Gallery

Jonah Perertti of Buzzfeed.com gave an interesting presentation on viral marketing on 17 April 2009 at the Science Gallery, as part of the Infectious festival and exhibition. Viral marketing is tangential to the subject of my MA research, but I noted some points that may be of interest.

Some aspects of his talk aligned with the observations of Shirkey regarding the societal forces that limit or promote the effects of Internet technology.

• In the case of viral marketing it is the social imperative that drives the passing-on of the viral content.
• The architecture of the underlying system influences how viral memes spread. He drew an analogy with a forest fire: it is not so much about the particular match as about the dry brushwood and the trees. “The network structure is more important than the influencers.”

There are a number of non-trivial problems with viral marketing that need to be mitigated against:
1 It is unpredictable and hard to control.
2 What tends to spread is inconsequential: free, simple, fun and instant.
Ergo most messages are not viral. Furthermore, the slightest drag makes something non-viral. To grow at exponential rate 100 people will need to tell 200, who then go on to tell 400 and so on. If the spread rate is only one-to-one or less, then it will die out.

He spoke about his categorisation of the ‘Bored At Work Network’. This seemed to posit some kind of viral elite who are too busy, too hip and too creative to ever have any time to be bored, as opposed to millions of numb accountants and claims-adjusters waiting to click on the next photo of a kitten on a skateboard.

In terms of viral marketing for things other than novelty, fun, trivia, he spoke about ‘big seed media’. This seemed to have an old-school Interruption Marketing basis, as its starting point was leveraging an installed base of email addresses. His example was the Tide detergent company emailing a million people to shift 40k of product samples.

More interesting was his overview of the real-time audience data informing the editorial decisions on the Huffington Post home page. Articles are promoted or demoted based on their audience figures. This reinforces Shirkey’s analysis of the new paradigm of ‘publish first and filter second’. It is the same Darwinian methodology that kills off unpopular television shows, but whereas that process takes months this happens in hours.

Finally, in strategising how best to propagate your particular message, he advised “it is best to think like a Mormon rather than a Jew”. That metaphor is about focussing as much on the mechanism of how your message is to spread and not just on the content of your message. This is probably his most insightful point. Looking to the Irish graphic design blogosphere the greatest failing seems to be that most effort is expended on the content and little on ensuring both that the content is read and that it facilitates being read. Building in hooks for propagation whether by social imperatives or other means is part of the key to success.