How Marketing Can Help You Catch a Cold

“all models are wrong, but some are useful,”

In Robustness in Statistics
(Edited by: Launer RL, Wilkinson GN). New York: Academic Press 1979.

Before I took to the computer games and animation businesses, I had an academic background in biology and ecology, and a career in accountancy. It therefore makes me smile to hear people talking about “viral” campaigns in marketing terms as if the mechanisms had just been discovered. Obviously evolution got there a bit earlier than the marketing teams, no matter how clever they were.

The marketing world has widely adopted the word “viral” as some sort of magical conjuration which implies that for zero cost, in zero time, an infinite number of consumers will tell each other about, and that subsequently adopt, whatever the latest product you have delivered is. Nature provides an answer to that sort of optimism in that we are not all instantly killed by the next real virus that evolves. Therefore there is no rational reason that we should expect our product to instantly conquer the world for zero effort in zero time. Understanding the dynamics and flow of viral contagion can give us real and deep understanding of how “passion” for a product propagates in a community. That kind of insight is the difference between life or death for tech start-ups, so I will try to write this in terms aimed at them. I’ll try to cover what sort of people help you spread an idea (pretty well covered in books like “The Tipping Point” and “Fast Company” and “Idea Virus. I’ll try to deal with how fast products can spread, and what limits that, and how you can influence it. I’ll try to deal with how to maintain an idea in the market, and I’ll try to explain why ideas are not entirely the same as virus particles and what practical effects that has.

It is going to take me a while. I don’t promise to finish, and I’d love help!

So –

PART 1 – The Initial Infection

The word “viral” comes from a well understood, mathematically modelled, infectious process whereby non-living viruses reach, penetrate, subvert, and apply the resources of a host cell to the creation of more viruses.  It is therefore appropriate to look at the underlying factors that drive true infectivity in a viral contagion.

We do not at this stage, but may later, need to consider the detailed mathematics in an epidemiological model.  The expected number of secondary cases produced by a typical infected individual during their entire period of infectiousness in a completely susceptible population is mathematically defined as the dominant eigenvalue of a positive linear operator. I have no idea what this means anymore, but apparently I used to understand it and even wrote about it in exams. (The perils of aging…).

Anyway… We can calculate the effect of changes in each factor on the rate of uptake and adoption of our products when we want to and have the data to do so. However it is extremely valuable right now that those mathematics exist as they can tell us which factors we need to look at in simple terms and which ones are most important. As any company matures, and the size of the market we each attempt to reach with each release grows, we will wish to increasingly turn to the maths to quantify the various factors in the models. For now, you will be relieved to hear, I’ll stick to simple English.

Initial Infection Factors

Now, I was supposed to be talking mostly about the initial infection stage.

OK, so let’s start talking about “our products” and start to dig around in the biological viral models to see what they can tell us.

First things first: define your victims. Sorry: “target market”. We want to know who catches it and when.

We start off facing a large and usually ill (pun intended) pool of uninfected hosts. Uninfected hosts are all slightly different, and each one will have a different level of resistance to the product / virus and each will take a different time to become infected and will react to the infection in a different manner along a statistical scale of reactions. It is therefore important that we influence our initial products, and associated marketing campaign, so that we spend our first and most vital effort reaching those uninfected hosts who are most likely to be infected quickly, and that we avoid wasting time challenging those hosts who are likely to be highly resistant or take a long time to succumb to infection. (Viruses are said to “challenge” their hosts as well as marketing people, yet another parallel).

Our priority must be to define the first small group of potential users that will succumb fast and a small number of specific purposes for the product which are immediately highly attractive and beneficial to those users to ensure they “get it”. (Conversely, any start up product is probably not yet ready to be all-purpose and suitable for absolutely any sort of user.  It is therefore important that start-up companies try to avoid spreading resources and design capability to thin at this stage.)

Initial Cohort

To help us undertand a little more about who we want to target first, let us then have a look at the “Intrinsic resistance”, “Time to Infect” and the Initial Infected Cohort of the target community.

Intrinsic resistance – Some people are natural nay sayers, cynics and sitters-on-hands. They will never adopt a new product. In practical terms we need to find people who have low intrinsic resistance, that is: they will already have a set of characteristics that predisposes them to succumbing to the idea.  This requires us to have a very well thought out, tested, refined, and quantifiable definition of our target consumer.  (At least as important as this will be the definition of those consumers who will not be likely to succumb. As I said above, don’t spend time on them, other than to identify them.). How can you tell who they are? Look for indicators in terms of other products, life style, spending, age, location, blog posts, club membership and attendance at events. Those can help.

Time to infect – in practical terms we need to make sure that we reach those people will have sufficient leisure time and opportunity to rapidly adopt our idea, rather than those who are already highly over-committed because they previously succumbed to other diseases / products which currently occupy all of their resources. How can you tell: look for people who were once rabidly enthusiastic about something similar, but who have cooled off now? Look for younger people (they tend to react faster than us, old crocks that we are) and look for people who are gregarious and who gain social prestige from promoting things.

Initial Infected Cohort. All infections start with an initial infected cohort. This may be as small as one cell. In corporate terms this is the first Evangelist, usually a founder of the company. They need to get out and spread the idea personally. The founder can infect a small, close community to create a true “initial infected cohort”, they will be just one connection away and will probably have physically met the Founder. The larger the initial infected cohort, the more rapidly the initial contagion will then spread.

In the case of our product the initial infected cohort is not the entire pioneer community of 6,400 users that we had on the 01/03/2008. It was only that proportion of the cohort which has not recovered from the “Moviestorm infection”, and which was additionally capable of infecting others.  For the sake of argument, my working assumption was that between 600 and 1,200 individuals formed our initial infected cohort. Each of the may be considered to have had “the Moviestorm disease” in an active and infectious state, and be prepared to infect others.

Moviestorm now, six months later has a current cohort of Pioneer users who can be maintained at around 10,000, and they are capable of infecting larger numbers of people through their blogs, videos, personal appearances, and behaviour, over a long period of time and having a substantial impact on the ultimate take-up of the product.

You can do the same maths for your product, and your own network.

No product should ever attempt to launch without an initially infected cohort. More importantly you MUST not launch until the initial cohort is PROPERLY INFECTED, which means, in simple terms, they are very satisfied with the product in surveys (say “8 out of 10” scores in SNAP analyses).

First Infection

How do we make them sick? Sorry: get them to adopt our idea? The normal measure for the point at which a viral infection takes hold is “Minimum Infectious Dose“; that is the lowest number of virus particles that can make you sick. In marketing terms that is the lowest number of exposures to the idea that will make you pick it up. Ideally that is one – they get it first time, but quite often it is more than that, and the marketeers rule of thumb is that people get a new idea when they have heard it seven times. So, we need to get our idea in front of this initial cohort a number of times, and give them reasons to “get sick” with our idea.

We can steal some knowledge from the “ACCTTO principles” of marketing here, as they give us some good clues as to what “properly infected” with a product means. Cutting down to the first letter we have “Advantage”.

Advantage to the user – the product must serve a specific purpose which is of benefit to the user and they must use it. If they are not using it, they are not going to infect someone else with it.

Our initial hypothesis for Moviestorm is that these are life events (such as inviting people to events), self-expression (such as video blogging), fan fiction or hero worship (such as making music videos), comedy and humour (such as telling jokes), objection or criticism (such as rants or arguments will fight), and desire to change behaviours (business presentations, education).

Our next priority is to seek – through awareness and alliances – to recruit the largest possible next cohort of users in our next target market, and spread the infection.

Next post

… of which more in a later post