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Unleasing the Idea virus

Unleasing the Idea virus

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Published by Johny D. Nguyen
“So, how do we get attention to ask for permission in the first place?”
This manifesto is the answer to that question.
“So, how do we get attention to ask for permission in the first place?”
This manifesto is the answer to that question.

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Published by: Johny D. Nguyen on May 20, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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One of the critical moments in the spread of an ideavirus is the question the consumer asks

before diving in: “Is it worth my time/money?”

Of course, your recommendation is important to me. Of course, I want to look as good as

you, be as smart as you, have as much fun as you. But I also care desperately about everyone

else’s opinion. After all, none of us is as smart as all of us!

The most common way this popularity is reinforced is that the user will hear about a new

ideavirus from more than one person. Usually, we hear about something first from a

promiscuous sneezer, someone who has some sort of benefit from making the

recommendation, or at the least, someone who’s always recommending stuff. We all know

somebody who eats out every night or listens to every CD or is into whatever bizarre

conspiracy theory has gripped insomniacs this week.

But then, sometimes we hear about the same ideavirus from someone else. And then another

person. Finally, we realize that something is really going on, and we investigate.

In the real world, these reinforcements are usually caused by sightings or physical

interactions. Riding through the New York subway last year, I encountered a kid wearing

what appeared to be a black stocking on his head. But along the hem were the words,

“Tommy Hilfilger.” It seemed like an odd affectation and I let it go.

A week later, I saw four more Hilfiger skull caps. In the week after that, a dozen. If I were in

search of genuine urban chic, I certainly would have bought one at that point, if only to

protect my trademark bald pate from the winter chill.

The same thing happened with the VW Beetle. First there was one in my neighborhood (a

yellow one) and then a few, and then a dozen. With all these reinforcements, I assumed that

it was now a safe thing to consider, and went to the dealer to have a look for myself.

Unleashing the Ideavirus



Online, the rules are very different. There is no physical world to bump into. Instead (and

even better for the statistician in each of us), there are actual digital counters and accurate, up

to the minute bestseller lists. No guessing. No inferences. The real scoop.

Amazon.com has a bestseller list more than a million titles long. Visit any title and you can

see where it stands compared to every single other title in the world. Wow. Now we instantly

understand what’s hot and what’s not.

MP3.com has done the same thing with music. As a track gets played more and more often,

it moves up their digital bestseller list. And yes, Zipf’s law works here too—the topmost

tunes are downloaded far often more than those just below them.

We use the same math when we look at the MediaMetrix list of the most visited websites, or

Variety’s tally of the weekly box office numbers (some people saw “Titanic” just because it

seemed that everyone else was). Various organizations also track bestselling cars, bestselling

vodka and highest-paid executives.

One of the best ways to facilitate adoption of your ideavirus is to find a bestseller list that

makes sense and then dominate it. If that’s impossible, figure out how to create your own

bestseller list and popularize that!

This isn’t just conjecture. A breakthrough paper by Stanford Business School professor Kirk

Hanson demonstrated this in a really profound way. His team artificially boosted the

bestseller status of files for download on the web (they downloaded one file over and over

again, increasing the counter of how often it had been downloaded). The result? Heavily

downloaded files get downloaded more often! Nothing was changed but the counter, but

users were more interested in seeing the most popular files. Simple, but true.

Want to launch a new drink using your company’s chi-chi liquer? Why not identify the right

bar, frequented by powerful sneezers in the hive you’re targeting. Then pay the bar to post a

“bestselling drinks list.” Now, bribe enough folks to go in and buy themselves a drink. Soon,

you’ll see your drink climbing the bestselling drinks list, and this alone ought to be enough

to get other—less easily bribed drinkers—to give it a try.

Unleashing the Ideavirus



Of course, sampling doesn’t always lead to the spreading of a virus, but without sampling,

you’ve got no chance, do you?

Unleashing the Ideavirus



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