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Unleashing the Ideavirus

Unleashing the Ideavirus

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Published by Madalina Ion

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Published by: Madalina Ion on Jul 04, 2011
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12/23/2012

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Remember, viral marketing is a special case of the ideavirus where the amplifier for the virus

is built right into the product. And the hot spot for this wonderful self-propagating process is

in communication products.

Let’s take a look at the history of interpersonal business communication over the last 120

years:

Stamps

Telegraph

Telegram

Telephone

Telex

Fax

Conference Calls

Federal Express

Cell Phones

Videoconferencing

Email

The Web

ICQ and Instant Messaging

It’s a pretty extraordinary list. Twenty-five years ago, when I got my first real job, we had no

voice mail, no web pages, no fax machine, no cell phones, no pagers and no email. I

sometimes wonder what we did all day!

So why is there such rapid innovation in this field, when, at the same time, we are still using

precisely the same Qwerty keyboard found on the early typewriters and the same pink “while

you were out” message pads that came with the first phone?

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The answer is pretty simple: Each one of these devices creates long-term profits for its

inventor but is spread at a relatively low cost. And the reason it spreads? Because of viral

marketing.

Communication products demand viral marketing because they’re worthless without

someone at the other end. Metcalfe’s law tells us that the value of a network increases with

the square of the number of people using it. So when there are 10 fax machines in the world,

that’s 25 times better than when there were just 2.

Once I buy a communications device, two things happen. First, I become a powerful sneezer,

telling all my friends to buy one so I can send them stuff. And second, provided it’s a tool

that uses an existing channel (like FedEx or Hotmail), every time I send someone a message,

it’s selling the medium.

The story of Post-It notes is so good it ought to be apocryphal but it’s actually true. Nobody

was buying them. 3M was going to cancel the whole program. Then the brand manager of

the product persuaded the secretary of the chairman of 3M to send a case of Post-Its to the

secretaries of the chairmen of the other 499 Fortune 500 companies.

Suddenly, the most powerful sneezers in the most powerful companies in the country were

sending around memos, all containing comments scrawled on Post-Its. It took just a few

months after that for it to become yet another successful business communication device. A

classic ideavirus.

When I was in business school, a classmate spent a year working on a secret project he

wouldn’t tell anyone about. Turns out he was working to launch MCI Mail, the first

commercial email system. It’s a shame he couldn’t tell anyone, because a bunch of us would

have been happy to tell him what we knew, even 20 years ago: An email system isn’t going to

work if there isn’t anyone to send email to!

MCI was charging about $100 to set you up, and another $20 or so a month, plus usage, for

this new service. Big mistake! They inserted friction early in the process, ensuring that people

would never try it, especially so early in the virus’s life.

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My idea was that they give MCI Mail, plus a computer to send it with, to 50 people in each

of the top 100 companies in a given industry. FREE. Suddenly, that industry’s leaders would

be communicating with each other fast and frequently. It would change the culture of the

company. The virus would spread. MCI would win.

What’s the lesson? There are two:

3. If you can somehow convert your idea into a virus that has to do with communication,

it’s much easier to make it go viral. The best sort of communication is an actual

communication tool (like the fax machine or ICQ) but inventing words, new musical

concepts or other ways people communicate goes a long way as well.

4. Find the powerful sneezers and beg, cajole and bribe them to use your new tool.

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