Q&A: Controlling the Ideavirus

Our series continues…

Dennis O. Smith wrote in with this question about Unleashing the Ideavirus: "I understand the concept of spreading the idea, but how can you control or direct that growth? 'Going viral' is great for fast growth and sharing of your idea, but are there mechanisms to steer it, trim it, shape it, etc."

The reason that so many people catch a cold every year is that no one is trying to control where it goes. The reason that Wikipedia is so robust is that control is decentralized. The reason that there's a huge disconnect between corporate marketing and ideas that spread is that the culture of contagious ideas is anethema to the command, control and responsibility mindset of the industrial marketer.

There's a huge difference between, "I want people to talk about this," and "I want to control what people say."

But, and it's a huge but, the marketer decides where the virus starts. She decides who the first sneezers will be. She decides on what easy-to-use tools may be made available to the group that she's identified. These decisions go a very long way to determining what happens next.

Napster and Facebook were both optimized for college students and were intentionally seeded there. Sure, the founders could have picked nursing homes or military academies, but the character and culture of the college campus ensured that not only would these ideas  spread, but that they would spread in the desired direction.

If you want to spread an idea among policy wonks, don't involve People-magazine style celebrities, or aim for big numbers. Instead, find the hive that matches the group you'd like to be discussing your idea, and (this is the big and) create an idea that not only interests this group, but is easy and fun to spread precisely among this group.

[When I launched this book, I knew which group I wanted to read it. So I wrote in a tone that appealed to this group, placed a long excerpt in Fast Company, which was sort of patient zero for this group, and then gave the book away for free (it's still free online) with explicit instructions to share and email it to people who might become engaged with it.

No, I couldn't control what would happen, or where it would go, or what the impact might be, but by picking the 3,000 people who got it first, and then making it easy for this group to share it, it quickly got to over a million readers. This wasn't the fastest way to get to a big number, but it was the best way to get to the right number and kind of people.

The temptation is to be big, when the real goal ought to be effective.]

PS last time I checked, you can get a used copy of the 13-year old edition of the book for a penny. You may notice that I've chosen not to update past blog posts, past books or past websites. That's because each is a testament to when it was written, as opposed to being a constantly updating resource. Even so, I hope these older books can add value and give you perspective.

PPS Fritz Lieber wrote about the out of control ideavirus in his short story "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee" published more than fifty years ago.