Category Archives: viral marketing

The metaconversation wins for BBH Labs in Austin


Everyone wants to go viral, yet so few have the balls to do so.

BBH Labs just showed how it’s done by hacking SXSW Interactive, an Austin tech conference with so many product launches that breaking out there is nearly impossible. (If Twitter showed up this year, everyone would yawn.) So BBH came up with a plan to draw attention to the plight of the homeless by turning homeless volunteers into “mobile hotspots” — armed with MiFi connections that could get a nearby user online, provided he or she spoke with the homeless person and got the passcode. BBH gave simple instructions on its blog: “Introduce yourself, then log on to their 4G network via your phone or tablet for a quick high-quality connection. You pay what you want (ideally via the PayPal link on the site so we can track finances), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access.”

Alas, the idea of turning poor homeless people into roving antennae drew controversy. The radio business program Marketplace got snide interviewing BBH Lab’s Saneel Radia, and the UK’s Daily Mail derided the “marketing stunt” that drew “an outcry.”

Which is exactly the point. Now millions of people are hearing about the plight of homeless people in Texas, and how an agency used technology to get them fleeting jobs. You’re probably thinking, wow, those poor homeless people. Maybe tomorrow you’ll notice one on a street instead of walking by in oblivion. With a few mobile handsets and cheap printed T-shirts, BBH Labs has accomplished what $1 million in advertising could not have done.

The only conversation that counts is the one that makes you think. Saneel and BBH Labs, all we can say is, well done.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.


A deeper essay on the formula for viral success


The secret dream of anyone who manages an ad budget is to not pay for the next wave of customers — because in this fantasy, culture will decree everyone must have the product, so the product will begin to sell itself. Think of tulips or Sony Walkmans or Razor Scooters or iPads, all mass crazes in their day. Marketers long for viral success, the rapid scale of their idea throughout the population like a powerful virus.

Yet not every concept thrives, and most fail rapidly. Charlie Sheen was a hot topic a few months ago, but is now fading in your memory as a troubled TV star. Japan’s nuclear disaster was a major concern in March, but you’ve stopped worrying that radioactive clouds may blow your way. You once needed the latest iPod, but now if you drop the little gizmo on the sidewalk, you think, oh well.

Society is filled with two types of ideas, the ones such as religion and hairstyles that last in human minds for centuries, and others such as Razor Scooters that come and go like mist. Why do only some ideas spread? There are four factors:

1. The gravity of decay
2. The formula for viral success
3. Network receptivity
4. Cultural idea stasis

First, why go viral?

To understand why viral success matters, first learn the word “meme.” If you work in marketing and don’t know it, you’re missing the structure behind what you do.

The term “meme” (rhymes with gene) was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist who posited that cultural ideas — religion, dress codes, haircuts — undergo competition and natural selection similar to genes until winners emerge, the victors then taking over societal acceptance. (You can see this evolution in human rights, if you pan out, as more inclusive laws for voting and access are passed in each societal generation.) Propagating memes is what marketers do — we try to embed a concept (a subcompact SUV, a diet energy drink, an insurance policy with a diminishing deductible, a new AT&T data plan) into the masses of humanity until it becomes a core need, not a nice-to-have option. Advertising is the communications accelerant for memes.

Marketing, of course, has more levers than advertising and does more than spread memes; in its broadest definition, marketing reaches inward in organizations to logistics, operations, and product development, and outward to distribution, sales, and customer service. But marketing’s core function is to connect supply production with market demand, and scaling the idea of the product outward is marketing’s greatest success. Apple, which has become more of a design company than technology or product maker in the past 15 years, has scaled massively as its brand becomes an icon for the future of communications. Apple is now a meme.

One false current debate in advertising circles is whether social media may be replacing old media in spreading memes, largely because the networks of interconnected consumers provide better pathways for scaling ideas. This either-or, Twitter vs. TV dichotomy is a false argument, of course; all channels have some value in pushing messages out, word-of-mouth marketing has always existing, and consumers don’t give a rat’s asterisk about most brand messages. Anyone who does passing research in consumer media consumption quickly finds it is an “and” equation, with people watching 5+ hours of TV a day and spending hours on mobile, the web, and social media, too.

Spreading ideas requires both old push media and new share channels. In simplest terms, there are more marketers trying to push ideas than consumers willing to listen or share them, so for the foreseeable future we will need mass media (TV, radio, outdoor) as well as digital, social and mobile for concepts to reach the market.

Beneath the silliness of saying one medium is better than another for moving ideas lies a more difficult truth: All ideas will stop spreading and will decay across all channels, because the friction of sharing outweighs the velocity of their speed.

The gravity of decay

Now let’s examine why ideas die. Our culture just can’t absorb all the inputs, and when an Old Spice guy or Razor Scooter does go viral, our impatience pushes the fad aside quickly. Back in 2010 the social-media monitoring service Sysomos analyzed 1.2 billion tweets and found most disappear rapidly; only 6% of tweets were retweeted (passed along), and only 1.53% achieved three levels of sharing.

A quick trip to chemistry class illustrates the math of decay. The atoms that make up radioactive material such as uranium are unstable, meaning that their innards (protons and neutrons) gradually shoot out random energy, kicking out a couple of their nucleus number as well. (This is groovy, kids, since changing the nucleus changes the substance. If carbon-14 gets excited and fires off gamma rays, it loses mass and becomes nitrogen-14.)

A batch of radioactive material contains a lot of atoms, of course, so while the timing of any individual atom’s decay is random, the curve of overall “radioactive decay rates” can be predicted. The term “half life” comes from the period of time it takes for any radioactive material to lose half its original value. Like a bad high-school relationship, the decay goes slower the less substance there is left; this happens because, by definition, half of the remaining unstable atoms will decay over period X; then one-half of those remaining atoms decay in the subsequent equal period; and the curve stretches out until an almost flat line. The radioactive relationship is dying, but ever more slowly.

Marketers whose message goes nowhere know that feeling well.

The formula for viral success

While most ideas decay like radioactive isotopes, there is a path for viruses to succeed. The math is very simple.

Viral spread = (Message generation rate – Absorption rate) * Cycle time.

This is the formula antivirus companies such as Symantic use to model how computer viruses spread over time, and it simply means if the passalong rate is greater than the stop-paying-attention rate, information will grow within a network more than it dies.

Say you tweet something really, really clever. If 1 person passes that 1 message to 1 other person, the path becomes linear … 1 to 1 to 1 … and the message won’t scale to the masses. Your idea will flatline, really going nowhere.

However, If 1 person, on average, passes to 1.1 people, then the message goes viral … 1 to 1.1 to 1.21, growing with every iterative cycle. Just a slight uptick in passalong rate can take you to millions. For instance, if every person passes your message to 1.5 people, after 10 cycles you’ve reached 57 people, after 20 cycles you’ve reached 3,325, and 40 passalong cycles later your message has been read by 11 million people. Increase the passalong rate to 3, and you’d clear the same 11 million people after only 15 sharing levels.

The math works in reverse; if absorption (users who stop sharing) is greater than generation (those who do share), your idea “use” quickly declines.

It’s not easy succeeding with this math, because inertia is against the marketer. The “Law of Large Numbers,” a simple concept from probability theory, declares than in any number of events the average result will converge on the expected value — flip a penny 10 times and 7 may be heads, 3 tails, but flip the same coin 1,000 times and almost 50% will be heads, 50% tails. The average human message-sharing impulse is close to zero, so the native absorption rate is high while regeneration is low.

So the more passalong events you encounter, the more likely your idea is to hit the average of all user apathy, tipping the passalong rate downward. The Law of Large Numbers decrees your idea will likely die.

The importance of network receptivity

Another voguish idea among marketers is to focus on “influencers” — the key hubs in a human network with the greatest number of connections, or influence — to push messages viral. Malcolm Gladwell posited in his book “The Tipping Point” that “people with a particular and rare set of social gifts” can accelerate ideas through a human network.

Yahoo researcher Duncan Watts, a professor of sociology at Columbia, disputed Gladwell’s influence idea by studying retweets among 1.6 million Twitter users. Watts found that while influencers play a moderate role in selecting what messages get pushed forward, the receptivity of the entire human network to the idea was most important.

This makes sense mathematically. The Law of Large Numbers means viral transmission will randomly converge on an expected value, typically less than 1.0 passalong, so most ideas will fade. However, if the entire network is primed to be receptive to an idea — say, U.S. consumers are all scared witless by a sudden near-collapse of the financial system, and one political candidate seems to offer a solution — a fresh meme related to that receptive environment may achieve passalong everywhere greater than 1.0, and thus scale. This is why Obama won the last presidential election.

This is also why social-network interfaces keep changing. For-profit networks such as Twitter, Google and Facebook want to increase their utility to users (and thus audience sizes and ad revenue driven by those eyeballs), so they work hard to make their networks more receptive to ideas being passed through them. This was the impetus for the Facebook “Like” button and Google’s copycat “+1,” all meant to reduce the friction between you and your passalong click.

The network ecosystem matters most, but controlling it is almost impossible. The last big puzzle for marketers is to understand the context of the network environment, and how to make their idea fit.

Achieving cultural stasis

Finally, achieving viral marketing success is not enough if your idea lasts for only a fleeting moment. Marketers want to make their meme stick. Flash-in-the-pan hits, such as the Skittles-Twitter funniness or Evian’s roller babies, scale rapidly and die quickly. This won’t do.

You don’t want to be a fad. You don’t even want a year of success, such as the Old Spice Man Your Man Could Smell Like boosting sales for 2010 (and winning a well-deserved Grand Effie).

You want to become a religion. You want your idea to achieve escape velocity in which the gravity of disinterest no longer holds it; the concept reaches an unstoppable orbit as the core service, the default product, the status quo.

Think of such ideas — concepts so common that, like the air around us, we forget they exist. Belief in God; the institution of marriage; holding animals indoors as pets; covering our nakedness with clothes; men shaving; women wearing makeup; worthless paper denoted as “money”; the very theory of money itself. The base of all these “memes in stasis” are impulses to please ourselves, ease our fears, or signal our status to others. For some reason, we’ve adopted these ideas as our children.

Marketers would love to send out the meme that becomes the next bedrock of societal behavior; preferably one where they control supply and make a healthy margin off of its continued distribution. It’s a noble goal, one that pushes innovation and higher standards of living. Without such aspirations we wouldn’t have roof shingles, refrigerators, tomatoes or iPads.

Good luck sharing it, marketers. The math is stacked against you.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Image: Hen3k

What to learn from Groupon’s whopping 50% rev share


What does it say about the state of online advertising that businesses remain crazy to use Groupon at extremely high costs?

Groupon, as you know, is a deal-of-the-day network that has achieved phenomenal success since its launch in November 2008. It has scaled rapidly to 35 million registered users (partly through acquisitions of various couponing sites) and according to The Wall Street Journal may get to $1 billion in sales faster than any other company in history.

The secret, often reported but not-oft remarked upon, is Groupon’s model. The site takes a whopping 50% of all revenue resulting from the business promotion — not X dollars per impression, or even Y% of margin, but half of all the money you make. And businesses don’t seem to question it — according to Groupon itself, companies are lining up to get in its window, and Groupon turns down more applications than it accepts. Yowza. No wonder Groupon is rolling in the dough.

Given the law of supply and demand, these high prices must mean three things:

1. Going viral is almost impossible unless you game the system. If you use Groupon, you’re getting gouged as the price for going viral — meaning that lofty success, dreamed of by every marketer who’s uploaded a clever clip to YouTube, is in very short supply. Yes, we all remember Subservient Chicken or last year’s Old Spice dude, which got millions of web hits. But most campaigns never strike a chord in the masses to be passed along; it’s almost completely random that a guy does The Evolution of Dance for fame, and once a concept trends, it rarely can be repeated. Groupon takes advantage of this failing in today’s communications networks by allowing companies to pay to reach thousands of people. It has brilliantly gamed the impossibility of viral marketing by creating a mass audience that can be reached, for a sharp rev share. Groupon is the viral equivalent of Google’s “sponsored link” ads — you can be at the top, but only if you pay.

2. Virality, if achieved, is fleeting. The very nature of “deal of the day” is that the deal changes. Groupon knows consumers rush for the new-new thing, and then want something else, which works brilliantly for its coffers but not so good for its business clients. You might try Groupon once for a pop, say, launching a new coffeeshop in downtown San Francisco, but you’d never use Groupon as a sustainable marketing initiative. How could you, giving away 50% of your revenue in addition to the coupon value on top of it, just to get foot traffic?

3. Mass audiences win, even in the age of social media. Groupon’s core value is its near-guarantee of delivering your promotion to a mass audience (we mentioned 35 million registered users). Sure, it’s an assurance contract, where you only give it away if enough people sign up, but that creates momentum for the participants who want you to get more mass behind them. Gurus can talk about small communities and engaged individuals all they want, but Groupon shows what businesses really love is a large throng rushing their doors.

We mean Groupon no harm: 50% revenue for being smart and filling a market need? Bully for you. There is some value here because advertising online has become more challenging, with consumers awash in display ads (about 90% of all banner ad space goes unsold) and moving to smaller screen formats (iPhones, tablets) that reduce visual inventory for marketing intrusions. Groupon is riding this wave of despair with a surefire model to reach the masses. It works, but only for a quick pop, and only if you’re willing to give most of your money away. The question for Groupon is whether its king-of-online-coupon model is sustainable, even with a crack localized sales force. Google is fast upon its heels, and we can imagine the Amazons (see: LivingSocial) and eBays of the world easily finding a way to replicate the lure of discounts to the masses. In the end, competing on price is a feature and not a competitive advantage; and those pesky audiences that drive all the attention have a way of moving on.

The math behind influence and fame


Advertising exists to seed memes, ideas that spread through society like viruses in your head on a cold winter’s day. The fundamental hope is that a product or service concept becomes so desirable that, like Razor Scooters in the late 1990s or glass-tablet gadgets today, suddenly everyone will want one and share the news with their neighbors, with no incremental marketing cost. This is why the lure of social media is powerful with its promise of free, scalable connections …

Yet a new whitepaper by Cornell and HP Labs suggests building fame in social media is tougher than you think. Daniel M. Romero and colleagues processed more than 22 million tweets from 12 days in September 2009, looked at how often people clicked on web links inside the tweets, and then compared how those people were connected — and found that pure number of followers does not equal influence. Instead, as you might guess, there are some entities in social media with many followers whom no one listens to, and conversely some with few connections who tend to have their ideas shared everywhere. It’s an important dynamic to understand if you try to spread messages in Twitter, because only 1 in 318 tweets with URLs is ever retweeted, meaning the vast majority of Twitter missives trying lure people to click links hit a brick wall.

The Cornell/HP report found four types of entities on Twitter:

1. The superbly influential — users whose posted links are likely to be passed along (“A-listers” such as @mashable, @aplusk).

2. The passive — users who follow many, but rarely share things (“lurkers” or “automatons” such as @redscarebot).

3. Those not influential with many followers (“all show, no go,” alas, like @newsweek).

4. The highly influential with comparatively few followers (“beacons” such as @twitdraw).

The Economist suggests new analytics services such as Gnip will profit from helping marketers identify the human nodes inside social media that fall in buckets 1 or 4 above. Not everyone is an influencer; in new media, the money may flow to those who act most like old broadcasters.

The formula for going viral (or Twitter failure)


One reason marketers are fascinated by social media is the promise of “going viral,” or achieving “earned media,” in which positive conversations about your brand blossom among customers without you spending a dime. Everyone, from corporations to individuals, secretly longs to become the next cultural meme, to have your tweet retweeted and scaled until the world receives your message.

A recent study by Sysomos shows how difficult this can be. Sysomos examined 1.2 billion tweets and found that most died quickly, with 92.4% of any retweets happening within 60 minutes. About 6% of Twitter messages were retweeted, and 1.53% of all tweets had “three levels,” or bounced back and forth between Twitter users three times. Dirk Singer of UK PR firm Rabbit points out that 1.5% is a relatively high level of engagement compared to other marketing metrics, yet the issue is complex.

Why viruses stop

To understand why even this is failure, consider the formula for viral propagation. For your message to spread, the passalong rate must be higher than the absorption rate over a given period of time; that is, if only 1 person passes every 1 message along, and then every 1 person stops action, you’ll only have a linear path of meme sharing, and you’ll never reach more people than 1 at a time; you need 1.1 people to pass your message along vs. the 1 person who then stops after sharing for the message to continue to scale upward. Antivirus companies such as Symantec use similar models to predict how computer bugs spread. The formula is this:

Viral spread = (Message generation rate – Absorption rate) * Cycle time

So back to Twitter. If most tweets die shortly within 60 minutes, and only 1.53% make it three ripples deep, and most ripples are replies back to the originator, what we have is a half-life — a period of time in which the message must decay, similar to a radioactive material decomposing into something less dangerous. Even if a message does have a passalong generation rate greater than absorption, it will scale to thousands or potentially millions … but inevitably fading consumer interest means the absorption rate grows higher, and the fad dies off. This is why young businessmen no longer ride Razor Scooters in Manhattan, or why Skittles is no longer a discussion topic inside Twitter. Even memes that flare will fade.

There are few cultural messages that continue to spread for more than weeks or months. Religion is famously one; the recent Tea Party viewpoint, which has struck a fertile environment in the anger among recession-hammered Americans, is another. Marketers who seek long-term persuasion of the masses might consider more how to find a cultural niche that will support long-term passalong, instead of the tools such as Twitter that can seed the campaigns. Sustained success in bending the public to your conversation requires more than a hook; it requires a mathematical generation that beats the cold hand of absorption.

Image: Miles Smith

Ford honesty, or avoiding cognitive dissonance


Today Ford became the first automaker to launch a new vehicle via Facebook — with 12 updates providing a striptease of the new, more fuel-efficient Ford Explorer. We noted earlier in a guest post at Brandflakes that Ford seeded the campaign with an estimated $200,000-a-day in paid online advertising (thus dissing Mashable’s love note that social media works solely on its own). But beyond the integrated advertising-supporting-social synergy, what we really like is Ford’s honesty.

Honesty? That’s right. This entire bit is overtly promotional — there’s new sheet metal coming to the lots, boys! — and it’s all about selling the SUV. But that’s refreshing in a day when many brands resort to paying for tweets or shooting films of guys “walking across America” who really get there by van and hotel.

Sources matter

One cause of cognitive dissonance in modern communications is consumers get confused when they can’t determine the source of information. This wasn’t always the case; in the past, advertising was obviously paid, so you judged it with your guard up, like evaluating the pitch of a car salesperson. Editorial was supposedly unbiased, the external news collected by an altruistic reporter, and you reviewed it with similar guard against the mind of the writer. But today’s paid posts? Sponsored tweets? Quasi viral-truths? That’s all so confusing. And the risk is all communications will become less persuasive as consumers wonder which upstream sources are trying to bend their minds.

Ford ignored the temptation to pay people online to manipulate you, and instead paid for ads to invite you to a simple, clear social party. We find such honesty refreshing. We may not buy your truck, Scott Monty, but at least we can see where it’s coming from.

A fake walk across America

This is brilliant. And it also distorts the truth. This video professes to show a guy walking across America, strutting handsomely, in changing T-shirts but the same pair of jeans. Except the guy is a model, he didn’t really walk all the way across, and the images are a carefully staged compilation of 2,770 still photos shot between van trips — still a lot of work, but not a yearlong foot journey. The last shot shows him crossing off “walk across America” on his bucket list, with a closeup of the Levi’s back pocket. Guess what? Adweek editor Brian Morrissey says it was all sponsored by Levi’s.

So, is this cool? It’s free, after all. No one is hurt by the implied promise of a true story. Yet if we all know traditional advertising is fake, which is why we’re rushing to social media to find fresher, grittier, more realistic content, do we really want to find manipulated material there as well? It’s lovely art direction, Levi’s. But is seeding the Internet with fake virals about arduous adventures with no disclosure, well, really building brand loyalty?

P.S., if you want to see real truth, Christoph Rehage walked 4,646 kilometers across China. We can almost hear the Levi’s agency pitch meeting: Dudes, remember that crazy guy who hiked across Asia? We’ll film it in a month, except with your jeans. And our guy will have better hair.

Facebook takes down the walled gardens


When is more privacy less privacy? When you’re using Facebook — which tonight abolished regional networks.

Let us explain. Advertisers love social media because it gives them hope of “going viral.” You know, becoming the next Razor Scooter or Subservient Chicken. A small investment, an idea takes off, and everyone passes it to everyone else for free! Trouble is, social media has never been a fully open network that allows scalable messaging. People tend to shutter themselves off in little groups, and little groups mean your message will eventually hit a wall. Facebook, for instance, has empowered such islands since its inception by walling off “networks,” or regional clusters … say a college, so that the only people who could see your photos must belong to the same college as you.

Facebook wants to make money from advertisers. Advertisers want to go viral. Network subsets prevent that from happening. Are you with us yet?

So tonight, no surprise, Mark Zuckerberg posted a note saying that all of Facebook’s regional networks will be abolished. Poof. Gone. In exchange are supposed enhancements to your Facebook privacy settings so you can decide whether to share news with just friends, or friends of friends, or everyone. Sounds good. But we think Facebook just took down millions of walls, knowing full well that most people won’t bother to tweak privacy settings to re-wall their messages off. Instead of making privacy opt-out, Facebook just made it opt-in … meaning millions will now open up their updates to the world. It’s a welcome move for advertisers who wish their memes to go viral, since all those barriers to passage are now removed. But let’s call it what it is, people: Facebook just took the privacy walls down, hoping most people won’t notice.

As Mark said in his post, “almost 50 percent of all Facebook users are members of regional networks, so this is an important issue for us.” Yes, Mark, but with regional groups now gone, it no longer is.

Image: Ian Boyd

Windows 7 party was so bad, you linked to it. Suckas.

This is complicated so pay close attention. Microsoft just gamed you, bloggers. Yes, Redmond distributed a video that comically showed nerds hosting a “Windows 7 Launch Party.” And like fish snapping to the bait, bloggers began reposting the video while laughing at it, saying Windows 7 was uncool. Windows 7. Windows 7. And the links spread. The bad Windows 7 viral went viral. Microsoft was uncool, out of touch, with Windows 7. Windows 7. Within weeks the video scored 638,000 views on YouTube, mostly among the influential tech set. NPR picked up the story. And millions of Americans are now thinking about Windows 7.

Microsoft knows there is no ad placement better than the one that creates scandal. Windows 7. Very. Well. Played.

Dear Batgirl, are memes fading?

We miss Batgirl. You see, when we were kids in the 1970s (yes, we admit it), Batman reruns on TV were big after school, just as in primetime Happy Days was the big thing on TV. We went “pow” in the schoolyard fighting like Robin. Schoolkids would come in after a showing of the Fonz recounting the latest hip saying. After one Happy Days episode, where naive teenager Richie helped a geeky relative get cool by catching pennies falling off his elbow, we spent the better part of a week’s recess trying to grab 30 or 40 coins. (OK, to try this, put your right arm straight up; bend your forearm back over your shoulder; your forearm should now be horizontal with the ground, with your elbow in front of you about eye level; now stack a series of coins above your elbow, then rapidly swing your arm forward and try to catch the coins in mid-air before they pass your waist and hit the ground…)

You get it. That was a meme.

We see fewer and fewer memes, or cultural viruses, coming from mass media. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Saturday Night Live on NBC was one launching pad for cultural pass-alongs, and hip comedians could get everyone saying the same things on Mondays. The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World, Stuart Smally, all were comic riffs that people for some reason wanted to emulate. Alas, memes, those cultural ideas spread from one person to another like early Christianity or healthcare death panels, are getting harder to propagate with the fragmentation of media. While every ad agency in the land professes to help you build viral campaigns, we often wonder if “viral” has become totally randomized. Like the H1N1 Swine Flu, communication viruses mutate randomly until they eventually create the perfect version to become embedded in the culture of the moment. Because consumers themselves are creating so much content, their missives are just as likely to grab culture’s attention as anything a media conglomerate dreams up.

The bell curve front matches the back

If you work in marketing, sales or advertising, you’re in the business of memes, whether you know it or not. Your job is to influence people by spreading ideas, and yes you hope that they send those ideas on to others — that’s a meme. Alas, compounding the problem for marketers seeking to seed fads or needs or desires is that the lifespan of communal ideas is becoming truncated. Studies have shown that plotting the rise and fall of a viral phenomenon over time is equally as steep on the uptick as it is in the downswing. The Beatles gradually became a sensation and endured for decades. Skittles came and went in a week. If something suddenly becomes popular, it is just as likely to fade quickly. Culture, like the human body’s autoimmune system, can even reject memes if they seem too foreign; a dispassionate observer might argue Fox News’ and conservatives’ harsh rejection of plans to extend health insurance to 46 million citizens are a culture’s autoimmune system defense to a foreign object: an ethnic president from Chicago trying to expand urban support systems onto rural America. The issue of healthcare reform crested suddenly and unexpectedly this summer in the press, and just as quickly counter-forces drove the issue down in the polls. It wasn’t right or wrong; health care was just a meme that rose too high too fast, and fell off the logical popular cliff on the backside.

Easy come, easy go

So how do you get memes going? Here’s an interesting test if you are a marketer about to hire an agency to give you a social media “viral” campaign. Ask your agency, which is bragging about number of impressions and scope of “engagement” from its last viral successes, to plot the timeline of its past campaigns. Was it months? Weeks? Days? Hmm.

Add it up and we have fewer central cultural communication Petri dishes to seed memes; fragmented media which randomizes what gets transmitted; masses of consumers creating their own content just as likely to go viral; and shortened attention spans meaning even if your meme does succeed, it is likely to quickly fade. It’s not easy to bend culture to your will. The only solution we see is to continue to experiment, and to allow the masses of consumers who now have control over media tools the power to manipulate and play with your idea. Like a virus mutating, eventually something will form that takes creation tension too far until society goes boom. All of which reminds us that we miss Batgirl.