The downfall of a president. Protestors avoiding tear gas. An obscure sci-fi short story from 1973. Japanese teens. A comedy show based on crank phone calls. Cheap short-range wireless networking technologies. An upcoming book from a Net visionary. Viral marketing. Cell phones. Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing.
Random disconnected thoughts from a long-time ClickZ columnist? Maybe. But they’re also examples of some basic truths about how people use the Internet, how interactive marketing has worked in the past, and how it will continue to work in the future.
First, let me back up a minute and do my best James Burke impression as I try to put together all these seemingly disconnected bits. Bear with me. They really do have a lot to do with how we market online.
First, the revolution. In early 2001, Philippine president Joseph Estrada was ousted after an unprecedented wave of popular protests. Although these kinds of things have happened all over the world countless times, this event was unique because most of these protests happened somewhat suddenly as thousands of people gathered after contacting each other via wireless messaging and phone calls.
Similarly, protestors at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999 were able to avoid tear gas and organize themselves effectively because they were “networked” through cellular technology. Rather than becoming random mobs roaming the streets when they were disconnected from their leaders, these groups were able to maintain some sense of order and purpose through constant wireless connections.
And here’s where the obscure sci-fi comes in. In 1973, Larry Niven wrote a story called “Flash Crowd” in which he described the consequences of cheap teleportation. In his story, thousands of people, given the ability to transport themselves anywhere in the world, assembled at major news events in the blink of an eye — often getting in the way of those involved in the event. Sound a bit like the Internet? Others think so, too. The term “flash crowds” has entered into the networking lexicon to describe what happens when servers are overloaded from spikes in traffic.
That’s where Net visionary Howard Rheingold comes into the picture. Rheingold, famous already for his pioneering work in virtual communities (he wrote the book on the subject in 1993) is about to publish a book about what happens when technology connects people together into what he calls “smart mobs.”
“Smart mobs,” writes Rheingold, “emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation.” Protests guided by cell phones; revolutions organized by SMS messaging; servers downed by flash crowds; teenagers meeting both physically and virtually using wireless technologies; P2P networks; MP3 swapping; the “Crank Yankers” email promotion; and even commercial breakthroughs in wireless networking like those offered by MeshNetworks all fit into Rheingold’s framework of what happens when people, technology, and communication collide.
So, what does all this mean to us marketers? It means a lot when you start considering the implications on how Internet marketing works best. Even with our best efforts at online advertising, fancy ad format, and highly targeted campaigns, word of mouth seems to be the most effective way of getting people to visit our sites (along with search engines). People find sites, talk, and pass URLs on to friends. Those friends then visit the sites. We don’t have to look any further than the explosion of blogging or the friend-generated “check out this site” email clogging our inboxes to know that powerful forces are at work when it comes to word of mouth.
Why? The answer is simple: People, given the ability to connect to one another, will connect to each other. That’s been the power driving the Internet (and all communications technologies) since the beginning. Give people a simple way to talk to each other, and they’re going to use it — whether for overthrowing governments, throwing parties, sharing music, swapping sound clips, or just showing off pictures of the kids. It’s human nature.
So how can marketers effectively tap into this urge to communicate? Sure, there’s been plenty written about “viral marketing,” but finding viral success has been elusive. There’s also been a lot of talk about building word of mouth, but that can be pretty tough, too. However, if you look at the examples of “viral” successes in the “real world” (the examples mentioned earlier), three simple rules become clear:
- Information must be of value to more than one person; the virulence of the information increases proportionally with the number of people who find it valuable. That’s why the pictures of your grandkids (unless they’re particularly freakish or stunningly beautiful) probably won’t ever get transmitted beyond your immediate family circle — nobody outside of your family cares. On the other hand, Crank Yankers sound clips appeal to a wide range of people and get emailed all over the globe. The famous “network effect” only becomes effective if people really want the information.
- Information must be timely. Like the famous quote about fish and houseguests, information begins to stink after a few days. For those interested in toppling an oppressive regime, finding out about the rally days after the fact does no one any good. Similarly, a joke about Monica Lewinsky just doesn’t have the same resonance it did a few years ago. To be effective and to be transmitted, information has to resonate today.
- Information must be easily portable and transmittable. If you create a viral campaign that requires the transmission of a 100 megabyte video file in an obscure format, it’s going to fail. MP3 files get shared with such alacrity because they’re relatively small and can be played by just about anybody. SMS messages, while necessarily short and cryptic, contain enough information for people to plan parties or assemble at a remote location. The best, most passed-on info is short, simple, and platform-agnostic.
If you want to tap into the power of the Net to reach your customers (and, better yet, have them reach each other with your message), these rules should provide some time-tested guidelines for creating viral content. In the end, the key to creating effective Internet communications is understanding that it’s not about the technology. It’s about connecting people to other people… and facilitating further connections.