Tuesday, March 17, 2009

New Product Success: Influencers vs. Spreaders

For a long time, we marketers have trusted the age-old maxim: get your message to the right folks, who then will spread it to the rest/masses. These folks, affectionately called many names, including influencials, brand evangelists, information mavens, bloggers, among others, we believe, possess the power to infect the others and make them really passionate about an idea, service or a product. The idea that influencials have the power to make or break our business is so ingrained in our minds – after all, it intuitively makes sense on so many levels, that it has given rise to a plethora of new marketing services – mostly known as social media marketing. The logic is – influencials are now online – if you find them, and then convince them to endorse your product, you will be all set – organic demand and growth for your goodies will naturally follow.

This is precisely the premise behind The Tipping Point - How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
. Gladwell
presents a rather compelling take on how to induce change and start your small epidemic (it got me so revved up that I ultimately negotiated the publishing rights a few years ago and helped publish the book in Bulgaria about a year ago). One of the premises in the book is that ideas can spread like epidemics – you just need to know how to start one. And you guessed it right – a key ingredient in starting an epidemic lies in the hands and behavior of influentials – like the cool, hip folks in NYC who started the Hush Puppies epidemic for example. The power of influencials was harnessed by a cool new site called CoolSpotters
– which offers celebrity product choices spotted and exposed by hordes of avid followers.

Then, out of nowhere, enters in Duncan Watts
, whose new trend philosophy gets exposed in a very interesting piece by Clive Thompson in Fast Company
. Duncan Watts says that “to succeed with a new product, it's less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public's mood.” He is quoted to go even further saying that “any attempt to engineer success through Influentials…is almost certainly doomed to failure”. Because, he found through multiple, large-scale tests, that influentials don't govern person-to-person communication - we all do.

According to Watts, a product’s or an idea’s bright future is contingent on how susceptible we all are to that product, idea, or trend - “not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded”. Then he says trends occur at random – they cannot be predicted or engineered. (That article has a very interesting bit on what makes some music tracks hits - in essence, he says, hits are created randomly. What we know for sure, the article points, is that hits are heavily influenced by our social interactions - the more people rate a song highly, the higher our individual propensity to rate it higher too. But this group pressure is not enough to make a hit hit.)

So then Clive Thompson asks - what's a poor marketer to do??? Well, I have a few ideas:
1. Gauge how ready the market is for your idea – a few years back, I was part of a team who started a business offering automated travel advice to online travel providers – to be precise, we started that business in 1999 – it was too early. Online booking was nascent, trusted online advice was s stretch concept. People were not ready as they are today. There are a number of new market research companies who can help you there – my favorite ones are the ones that use the semantic web – like Crimson Hexagon
2. Start small and test it – see if people get your message right away. My friends at Propel Consulting
, are really great at helping companies validate their ideas. Hey, while you are at it, keep testing – build your product in a way that facilitates learning. And if you are New England-based, graduating or recent graduate, and are looking for seed money to start, check out this piece in the MHT
, which lists Business plan contests in the area
3. No matter if you are in front of the curve, or if you are riding it, map our your eco-system – there are probably a plethora of partners who will benefit from your service. Use them, leverage their brand power, trust and relationship with customers to build your position in the human mind.
4. Build your product with “spreadable” as one of your top core product/service features. Come up with your spreadability index scorecard – include things like person-to-person (email, easily embeddable code), social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, news aggregators, RSS, etc. – be religious about making easy, simple and intuitive for everyone to spread your idea. Measure what works, adandom what does not.
5. And then last but not least, look for those influencers– they may not influence person-to-person communications, but they do validate your idea. They alone may not start your epidemic, but without them, it will take you a while (and definitely more money) to infect a large following.

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