The Way Things Spread (the Opposite of What Gladwell Suggests)

futurelab default header

by: Scott Goodson

The word is Mark Earls is Malcolm Gladwell on Speed. Last year, he wrote a book called "Herd: How to Change Mass Behavior by Harnessing Our True Nature" available here.

The excellent book essentially says we’ve misunderstood human nature – we’re a social creature not the independent decision-maker of classical economics and Anglo culture. It’s the interaction between individuals that primarily shapes mass-behavior (not what we with our cleverness do). This leads us to rethink marketing, management etc

Today on Twitter I dropped a tweet about brands depending on the kindness of strangers to pass on information.

Mark wrote me on my Tweet and we started an exchange on the topic. "We do what we do because of other people, whatever our minds and our culture tell us about the independence of our decision making." And he sent along one of my favorite scenes in film.

He recently wrote a terrific article in Admap about this very topic, which says in short:

Things spread through populations the opposite way to that which we (and the likes of Gladwell) suggest. They always have done and always will


Pull not push (based on humankind’s no.1 learning and adaptive strategy – copying)

Without copying, nothing really spreads.

Behavioral (it’s what other folk do – not so much what they say – that we copy)

Things don’t tend to spread through the "hub-and-spoke" (as Keller etc suggest) but through other type of social network…

It’s when look over time & across a population (or any reasonably sized group) that the characteristic patterns of different kinds of copying are easy to discern

Big change to what marketing needs to do as a result: most of all, we need to stop thinking about marketing as something we do to them (or even with them); instead, let’s start to think of it as something that can help them be the social creatures they are…

There was also a very admirable post on Faris Yakob’s blog about the same topic.

Viral is a thing that happens, not a thing that is.

If people pass your communication on, it’s viral. If they don’t, it’s not. Sometimes I get calls saying this viral isn’t performing very well – what’s the problem? We’ve seeded it to all the right places, it’s on youtube and everything – where’s our traffic? The problem is usually that they’ve made an ad that contains nothing people consider worth showing to their friends.

Unless you would be willing to send whatever it is to your mates – it’s not viral!

This metaphor is very seductive and very hard to get rid of. It lets us think we understand. And specificaly, it re-affirms the structure of control. It implies all you need to do is create something that is ‘viral’ enough and it spreads through populations like, well, a virus – it self-propagates.

This is simply untrue.

What we mean when something goes ‘viral’ is that LOTS OF PEOPLE CHOOSE TO PROPAGATE IT. It requires people to do something.

Original Post: