Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Viral Marketing Revisited

Gareth over at Brand New just made a quick post about a Fast Company article on viral marketing. Duncan Watts, a professor of sociology at Columbia, has done some new research into the 'myth' of highly influential people.

I read this article on the plane a day ago, and it reminded me of a post I did a while back on another study that addressed this issue.

From Gareth's blog, how he described the Watt's research:

"If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one--and if it isn't, then almost no one can," Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it's less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public's mood. Sure, there'll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts's terminology, an "accidental Influential."
The following is from The Dynamics of Viral Marketing by Leskovec, Adamic and Huberman, some of their conclusions in a post I wrote back in November were:
  • The probability of a recommendation working if we receive it from multiple sources quickly reaches a (relatively low) threshold - the verbatim conclusion from this one was "...individuals are often impervious to the recommendations of their friends, and resist buying items they do not want". Couldn't agree more.
  • Highly connected people who recommend a lot ('spreaders', 'mavens', 'sneezers') tend to have significant diminishing returns - they seem to have an influence over their immediate friends, but the wider network discounts their recommendations the more often they receive them
Interesting similarity. And most of Watt's research was conducted using computer simulation models I believe. So there seems to be some real-world validation of the Watt's argument already.

The thing about this debate is that it challenges some time honored traditions - namely the diffusion model of marketing. Early Adopters might not have as much influence as first thought. Or, in Watt's argument, anyone can fall into the Early Adopter role - so finding them and seeding them again with a different idea is futile.

I've seen a lot of money and time sunk into isolating and engaging Early Adopter type audiences. Was all that wasted? Marketers of all ilks should be following this one closely.

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