Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Urgent! Pass It On: Three Big Sexy Secrets About Going Viral

Myths about going viral are part of the regular fare offered by new marketing gurus. “You create great content, and show it to ten friends who show it to ten friends and pretty soon it goes viral and a million people are looking at it.” Too bad the real world doesn’t work this way. So, what are the true secrets?

It is no secret that viral math is sexy. In the idealized scenario of each friend showing ten friends your content  and every friend showing it in turn to ten unduplicated friends, over a a million people have viewed your content in only six iterations!

But in the real world, you don’t get 100 percent response to anything.  If only one in ten of your friends show your not-so-great content to ten of their friends who behave in the same fashion, only ten people are exposed in each iteration and it will take 100,000 iterations to hit 1 million views. If the response is less than one in ten, your viewing audience dwindles to fractions in a few iterations.

The first big secret of going viral is to show your content to more than ten friends – the more the better. If only two out of ten friends who see your content then pass it on but you start with 17,500 “friends,” you’ll match the idealized 100 percent pass-along scenario and get over 1 million views in only six iterations.

Getting picked up in mass media is the next best thing to having lots of friends and a lot cheaper than buying them. Your humble blogger observes that mass media has a big role in most cases of content going viral.  How to make that happen is a subject for another blog, but for a hint see the first big secret above.

The second big secret is to use the proven techniques of direct marketing and merchandizing in your great content to attract attention and encourage response (see the tacky headline above). There infinite degrees of subtlety in doing this but even clumsy (see the tacky headline above) execution tends to work better than ignoring the experience of generations of practitioners. Ask yourself how you came to this sentence, NOW.

The third big secret is that going viral isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Great content that moves minds and results in big-ticket BtoB sales is often best delivered in person to a live audience. Events hold attention and allow substantive communication. And events greatly increase the response to the content. Your humble blogger admits that this point may seem self-serving (because it is). But ask yourself, if this assertion is not the case, why are so many marketing gurus so eager for speaking gigs and why are so many purveyors of the latest marketing technology using events to tell their stories?

So if you see new utility in these old marketing ideas: reaching big numbers, employing proven direct marketing and merchandizing techniques, and using events – pass a link along to at least ten of your friends. And if you want to prove me wrong, pass a link to absolutely all your friends – if this blog goes viral without any mass media boost, your humble blogger will confess his errors in a future blog.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

The Web Ain’t Dead - The Long Tales of Chris Anderson

“Ludicrous” is how a savvy reporter of media trends, Bob Sacks, describes Chris Anderson's latest big idea: The Web is Dead advanced recently in Wired. (What did you really think, Bob?)

Anderson may have struck out with this swing but he’s scored homeruns in the past with concepts captured in his best sellers, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More and Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

Plausible does not mean true. People like Anderson and The World is Flat author Thomas Friedman, have made good careers by generating plausible and interesting “big ideas.” But they are not producing what another “big idea” author, Jared Diamond, aptly terms, “reliable knowledge about the world.”

In business, if you are forced to deal scientifically, in cold facts, real materials, or accurate numbers, you quickly discover that what people intuitively believe about their products, their markets, their operations, their customers, their expenses, and their revenues often does not hold up empirically. More humbling, you find that your own assumptions and beliefs were often factually wrong. And, if you keep a record of your own actions you will find that you have a sadly human error rate.

Guessing and estimating is much easier and often more economical than counting and establishing genuine causal probabilities. Everybody relies on intuition. Speed can payoff, albeit with increased risk. But your intuition is best tempered by actually testing the truth of your conclusions every now and then, especially if you want to be a trend-setting author.

Airy conceptual confections can sell like catchy pop ditties. Anderson’s provocative Long Tail book, published in 2006, had a good run without much critical examination. It sold because it was effectively promoted, sounded plausible and had a strong emotional appeal. Anita Elberse, publishing in the Harvard Business Review, Should You Invest in the Long Tail?, mustered some pretty good evidence that Anderson’s recipe for “Selling Less of More” did not actually apply to the entertainment markets he used to illustrate his thesis or as she wryly observed, to the way in which Anderson’s book was successfully marketed. The academic jury is still out but business quickly moved on.

Free seemed to have a shorter run. Many had the wit to question why anyone should buy the book but few commentators ever asked how new and fresh the concept really was, given the enormous volume of free information, goods, and services already circulating in the traditional economy and especially in the media sector.  Again, business moved on.

Ironically, for all the ridicule of his latest foray, Anderson and his partner in crime, Michael Wolff, make some provocative points about the growing power of specialized apps on specialized devices (blame us for loving our smart phones and tablets) and the growing power of hybrid new-old media moguls (blame them for loving profit). Wolff focuses on the Russian mogul, Yuri Milner, who might agree with your humble blogger that in Media, Size Does Matter.

If the Anderson article didn’t have an obviously misleading graphic at the top, his Web is Dead thesis would have been much better received. And there might be a book in it yet!

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Marketing Impressions Still Matter

The current faith in our new media and new information technology tools seems uncomfortably like the faith in “smart bombs” early in the second Iraq war. The new technologies are formidable to be sure but they hardly “change everything.”

Most recently I heard that “image advertising is dead.” from a marketer who sells trade show equipment to smaller companies. For him, online search marketing is out-performing all his other marketing investments. He is a natural convert to the new faith in online media and automated lead tracking. But I was surprised to hear such a sweeping assertion from an experienced marketer.

I asked him what he drives. I didn’t even get into the fact that his product has a Xerox-like association with his category. As I suspected, he drives a German car, “a Benz,” he told me proudly.

Did clicks get you to buy that car,” I asked, “or were you persuaded to buy the car because of your belief in the value of the brand and what it symbolizes about you? Weren’t your beliefs more reinforced by impressions in brand advertising than supposed facts found on the Internet?” He had to concede that I had a point.

Impressions sell. That is why the demand for impressions is not going away.  In the marketing/media bazaar, the demand for impressions is not going to grow as fast as the demand for direct actions because the Internet, combined with new database technology, is opening up highly cost-effective opportunities for direct marketing but Internet-based direct marketing can not replace all impression advertising. In fact, the Internet also offers new ways to broadcast cheap, well-targeted impressions.

Too many marketers seem intent on throwing the impression baby out with the dirty “old media” bathwater. Some “new media experts” don’t seem to know how or why “old media” works for marketers. People don’t act immediately on every piece of information they receive. And they certainly don’t sift “rationally” through all available information to make considered purchase decisions.

We all buy (or vote or act in some way) based on subconscious processes that have evolved over millions of years to help us survive and prosper. And those emotional processes are naturally as varied as other individual and population characteristics of the human race. But impressions, the world-over, influence action.

New tools, exciting as they may be, are not the only forces of change in the competitive markets. Jonathan Salem Baskin, a provocative critic of traditional branding, makes a good case that the cumulative effect of brand advertising itself is one of the forces that has changed the environment in which we conduct marketing communications.

New tools in marketing, like “smart bombs” in war, definitely change your strategic options. But it is all too easy to get lulled into thinking that “everything has changed” and fail to face the real strategic issues in commerce, politics, and war.

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