Prepare to be infected by the viral marketers

Messages spread like viruses these days, as the petrol crisis shows. Can marketers use this power to send out their own messages? asks Alan Mitchell

Do ideas and information spread between people like viruses? If so, marketers need to put their thinking caps on. The nightmare possibilities were highlighted by the recent petrol crisis. With rocket-powered word-of-mouth – through mobile phones, e-mail and Internet chat rooms – activist consumers and pressure groups caused market chaos.

The dream scenario, on the other hand, is that viral marketing will allow a positive brand message to spread like wildfire. What unites the two is the potentially explosive effect of the chain letter where, if one person passes the message on to ten more people and each of them do likewise, a million people will soon be abuzz with the news.

Such chain letter reactions are becoming more common as we move towards a world where “sideways” flows of communication between consumers become as – or more – powerful than the “top down” communications channels traditionally controlled by marketers. But it would be unwise to base a brand communications strategy on the extremes of mob rule and viral marketing. A closer look at how diseases spread will point us in a different direction.

Whether and how fast an infection spreads depends on the interaction of many variables, such as the virulence of the infection itself (how it spreads itself, and how quickly), the degree of immunity among the host population, and how favourable the environment is for the infection.

Some diseases spread by turning their hosts into “vectors”, by making them cough or sneeze for example. Others wait more passively for the opportune moment to move on, as with sexually transmitted diseases. A parallel in the sphere of information would be the difference between urgent, important, actionable messages (such as “get petrol quick because stocks are running low!”) versus more relaxed messages (such as “that new restaurant down the road is really good”).

The most virulent diseases are not necessarily the most successful. The quicker a germ kills its host, the less time it has to jump to a new host before dying itself. A milder form leaves its host alive for longer and creates more opportunities for it to spread. Back in the 15th century if you got syphilis, the flesh literally fell off your face and you died horribly within months. Since then it has evolved to a milder and, arguably, more effective form – genital sores that take years to develop. Likewise, in information terms, petrol panics spread like wildfire but quickly burn themselves out. The positive restaurant recommendation may be very low key and travel very slowly, but it has longevity and could infect far more people in the long run.

Degree of immunity among the host population is also crucial. Francisco Pizarro, the brutal Spanish conquistador, undoubtedly played a major role in halving the Inca population in a generation. But it was not primarily by rape, pillage and burning, but through the smallpox disease the Spaniards brought with them. The Indians had never come into contact with smallpox before. They had zero resistance.

In the commercial world, keeping secrets is rather similar to the Incas’ isolation chamber. Once the secret gets out among the unprepared populace, the effects can be devastating. A policy of warts-and-all openness and transparency may be far less risky, long term, if continuing contact with the company prepares people for bad news. It builds their immunity.

None of these strategies is new. What is new, however, is the environment within which information viruses (whether positive or negative) spread. Urbanisation gave a massive boost to disease. Having many people living in close proximity makes the spread of an infection much easier. Indeed some infectious diseases, such as measles, are “crowd” diseases. They only emerged once people started living in cities and they die out if populations densities fall too much.

The digitally networked society is now creating new forms of digital crowds. Messages can travel extremely fast and far (in physical terms) within them. And the way people use mobile phones nowadays is rather akin to early city dwellers’ habit of throwing sewerage out into the street: it creates an “anytime, anywhere” opportunity for infections to spread.

What sort of brand or marketing strategies will evolve specifically to take advantage of these new forms of digital crowd? Viral marketing campaigns have their place. But as sneeze-driven forms of infection they must have urgent, actionable messages and low degrees of resistance among the populace. Highly motivational messages (such as “win a free flight or holiday for passing this message on”) and specially targeted interest groups are the perfect breeding ground.

For less virulent messages or more resistant populations, however, moments of truth probably matter more. Opportunities for positive contact – through excellent service or presence-marketing activities such as events – may be more effective than traditional media-driven “opportunities to see” in getting positive word to spread. And in a hothouse environment where gossip and rumour can spread like wildfire, sources of information that are trusted for their honesty, integrity and expertise have ever more value. Winning “trust angel” status is a major opportunity for a few select brands.

But how do you deal with negative messages? Pass-on rates are critical. With a pass-on rate of one to ten, a million people could be infected with just six messages. That’s an epidemic. If the pass-on rate falls to five, however, the infection nets only 16,000 new victims with the same number of messages. So any “medicine” that can bring the pass-on rate down is vital.

Companies therefore need to develop communications strategies that reduce the pass-on rates of negative messages. How many companies, for example, could recruit their employees, suppliers and customers to pass on “medical” messages? And how many non-customers or non-employees would be willing to spread these messages ?

Like a ring of walls around a medieval castle, building such “network defences” could become crucial. This simply reinforces a truism. Building reputations (which are based on what people say about you) is now taking precedence over traditional marketing communications (what you want to say to people). And companies have to do things that deserve such a reputation in the first place.

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