Call it a case study in viral communications. The Olympic torch sparked riots in Paris yesterday. Protesters furious with China human rights abuses stormed barricades and snuffed out the torch, forcing police to retreat with the smoldering symbol of human brotherhood … to the inside of a bus.
Not to belittle this controversy, but the Olympic torch — carried on a predictable path surrounded by political controversy — is a recipe for mass hysteria. It has the same ingredients as any human fad, whether that be Razor Scooters, iPhones or Facebook. Marketers who want to understand how fads start can learn from mob behavior.
Sociologists David Haddock and Daniel Polsby list four requirements for mass action:
1. Get a crowd. Mass behavior first requires a mass. Now, crowds alone do not spark riots — people cluster together every Fourth of July without harming each other. But a big group of people is the starting point.
2. Get some clones. The crowd must attract like-minded people, say, those who want to take action and who believe others do, too. If you think of any mass tipping point, it begins with similar users — musicians on MySpace, college students on Facebook, technology buffs with the iPhone. Protesters who care about the Chinese human rights issues share a powerful, political longing too.
3. Find the nodes. The crowd must then coalesce around “action nodes.” Riots or fads don’t start everywhere at once — there are certain points in the crowd that become trigger hotbeds.
Haddock and Polsby note that “action nodes” are like little magnets, attracting people most likely to start the fight or fad. For example, at street scenes, police and television reporters often cluster around spots where violence is most likely to erupt — so if you are interested in violence, you walk to where the police and reporters are. In marketing, “cool hunters” such as sneaker-clad bloggers we know report on the latest trends — so if you want to be on the edge, you read them every day.
In the absence of visual cues, people can often guess where the hotspot is. Consider one study where people were asked how they would meet a friend in New York City on a given day without any idea of where the friend would look for them. A common answer was: go to Grand Central Station, information booth, high noon. Because my friend would probably guess that, too.
A little intuition and you’re drawn to the epicenter.
4. Launch signal. And finally, a signal event is required. This is also known as a Schelling incident, after game-theory author Thomas Schelling, which tells you not what you should do but instead what other people are about to do. No one wants to be the first out of the gate (or the first to be arrested). But if you see others are about to charge in, you dive in, too.
Signal events may happen naturally because in any random order of events, patterns emerge. Flip a quarter 50 times, you’ll get three or four heads in a row. This is why your iPod repeats songs while it’s on shuffle. If you put enough angry people together, eventually a few will bump into police at about the same time, and that “pattern” triggers others on the edge to jump in.
(This vary randomness is frustrating for anyone, such as marketers, trying to launch a viral campaign because it really can’t be controlled. Facebook’s fame and fortune started with some tipping point at a college — but it just as easily could have been another social network that took off when a few frat guys all said at once, “man this is cool.”)
And that’s the lesson for marketers. You need a crowd, clones, nodes and a signal. The reason most marketers can’t launch viral campaigns easily is because they really only control 1 of the 4 ingredients, the signal. Without the crowd in the proper position, chasing the opportunity, the fad won’t fly.