Why People Copy Each Other Online and What We Can Learn

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by: Matt Rhodes

It seems that people are dancing in train stations across Europe. From ’spontaneous’ dancing in the UK to a full-blown rendition of Do-Re-Mi from the Sound of Music in Antwerp, Belgium. Of course none of these were actually spontaneous. They were well rehearsed, well planned and well executed. The UK dancing was actually an advert for T-Mobile; and the dancing in Belgium was promoting a TV show called “In Search of Maria” (op zoek naar maria).

So these original videos were professionally produced, filmed and seeded. The majority of the dancers were professional (although, especially in the T-Mobile version there are claims that lots of bystanders joined in) and the scenes had been choreographed for months. But that’s not the end of the story. What’s particularly fascinating about these videos is not the originals (good as they are) but the reactions they promote. And in particular the number of copy-cat videos that are now on YouTube. Members of the public making their own versions of the videos. Learning the moves, copying them and then posting them for everybody to see.

This is a pattern we see repeated often in social media. Videos can become be popular and widely spread (such as the case with Susan Boyle last week) but perhaps the more striking videos are those which also prompt people to copy and respond to them. From people dancing with the song lyrics written onto their bodies to people copying perhaps one of the original homemade viral hits – the Numa Numa guy. People copy others online.

So what can we learn from this? Three main things come to mind – each of them valuable for brands engaging in social media and those of us involved in building and managing online communities.

  1. People model behaviour online – use this to your advantage. The trend of copying the dances in these videos highlights a behaviour we see in our online communities at FreshNetworks. People model behaviour online – if your first members put up profile pictures, everybody will do; if you set a style of writing comments or responding to questions, others will use this too; and if you upload media of any kind you will find people upload similar things. This is due both to people sometimes needing and wanting an example to follow, and people wanting to contribute to the community in a meaningful and constructive way – a way that others do. Once you know this there are huge implications for how you seed, grow and manage any online community.
  2. You can do things with small groups and have big impact. These videos were all produced with a relatively small initial audience – the people in the station. A lot of money and time was spent on perfecting this experience for them. Allowing them to video it, tell their friends and talk about they had seen. Although the videos have since been used in elaborate advertising campaigns, it is this original, small group of people who are most important. They feel special – they were the first to see, know and do something. They were able to spread the word themselves and tell other people what they had seen. With social media and online communities you don’t have to get a big audience first time. In fact is can be best not to. Make a small group of people feel special and they will spread the word for you.
  3. People like things that make them smile. The commonality across many of the videos copied online is that they make people smile. They’re fun and rewarding. People want to be part of the ritual and experience some of the delight for themselves. That’s why they copy the videos and why they spread them. So think always – how do you make your community members smile.

Original Post: http://blog.freshnetworks.com/2009/04/why-people-copy-each-other-online-and-what-we-can-learn/