Forest Fire Marketing: A different route to The Tipping Point ~ Brand Mix

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Forest Fire Marketing: A different route to The Tipping Point

What’s this? Influencers don’t influence. Opinion leaders don’t lead. Highly connected people’s connections don’t matter?

I finally got around to reading Clive Thompson’s Fast Company article which reports on the work that Duncan Watts has been doing to test and debunk the widely held belief that trends can be triggered by finding and targeting key influentials.

Expressed by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point as “The Law of the Few,” it was one (but only one) of the factors he cited that can “tip” a trend. One day, there’s a few people wearing Hush Puppies in New York’s East Village. The next day everyone’s wearing them. By reaching such superinfluential trend leaders, a trend tidal wave can be created. Such thinking is the driver of many word of mouth and viral marketing campaigns and it's becoming more and more popular as people look for mass marketing alternatives – an estimated $1 billion was spent last year targeting Influentials (Marketing Vox).

But as Duncan Watts says in the Fast company piece: “It just doesn’t work.” He doesn't just say it - he's set up experiments that prove it doesn’t work. Some people may be more influential than others but he’s shown that it’s impossible to predict who will influence any particular trend. It's not always the same people. You only know after the fact who the key influencers are for any particular trend which is obviously not useful for marketers who'd like to find some go-to people to start the next one.

Watts argues that trends don't spread like diseases (the idea behind viral marketing). They spread like forest fires. Out of the thousands of fires every year, only a few become "roaring monsters" because they happen at just the right time. If the right conditions exist "any old match will do." The ironic implication is that, since you can't know who is going to start the fire, you should target as many people as possible. In other words, mass market. Even if you create a viral marketing idea, it's best to distribute it en masse rather than selectively.

The other implication is that timing is everything. You have to launch a product, service or idea at just the right time for it to explode. Too early, the market's not ready. Too late, you'll never catch up. It speaks to the overwhelming importance of staying real close to the consumer and having something worthwhile to market in the first place.

1) Is the Tipping Point Toast? Clive Thompson in Fast Company
2) The Influencables. John Moore in Brand Autopsy (This post links to a whole bunch of others that discuss this article if you really want to dig deep)

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