# Drunken tweets and Barbie covers: It’s all a meme game

A casual observer might think Western culture is going nuts. JC Penney tweets typos drunkenly during the Super Bowl. Actor Shia LaBeauf walks out of a film festival with a paper bag on his head. Miley Cyrus gives America erotic dancing on a major awards show and starts sticking her tongue out in every photo. And Sports Illustrated puts a Barbie doll on its annual swimsuit cover.

Yet this is all sanity. These are all careful attempts to game the limited attention span of consumers by seeding provocative memes. You’re being played, people.

A meme is a concept by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins that information passes through society similar to genes or viruses — evolving, striving to thrive and spread, but often failing. When memes succeed, millions of people change their behavior: Handshakes become fist bumps, baseball caps get worn backward instead of forwards, men begin pairing blue jeans with blazers, women begin wearing knee-high boots in winter. At a certain point, like an epidemic of the flu, the information “tips” into mass adoption. Marketers love this concept, of course, because it requires zero advertising budget — and the Holy Grail of any campaign is to get the world to buy your product out of simple collective desire.

The challenge for meme adoption, like the spread of anything, is physics. Friction slows momentum. There is a basic formula for how information goes viral, and for when it slows down, which is:

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

or more succinctly

V = (M-A) * C

As I wrote back in 2010, computer security companies such as Symantec use this formula to predict when a computer virus will spread or fade. In simple terms, if the message generation rate from node to node, or person to person, exceeds the absorption rate, the message will spread. But if the “absorption rate,” or percent of people in the passalong chain who get bored and stop sharing the message, exceeds those who do pass the message, the viral idea will stall. And cycle time, of course, is simply the speed of passage. Tweets that get buzz during the Super Bowl have a fast cycle time because millions of people are scanning Twitter for a fun idea at the same time; religion, one of the most successful memes in history, has a slower cycle time but is comparatively more stable.

Nice cuffed jeans, champ

Oh how marketers want to become the next meme. Do you wear a tie to business meetings? That’s a meme that’s stuck in your head, men. Women, do you wear eyeliner? Meme. Hipsters, have you started cuffing the bottoms of your jeans? Welcome to an emerging meme. Have you noticed that eyeglass frames are getting much bigger in the past two years, approaching 1950s plastic dimensions? Uh-huh. The pressure of collective adoption is changing your behavior without you even realizing it.

You, dear consumer, are a meme sucker.

The trouble that marketers face in trying to push their next product through this meme cycle is the absorption rate in society today is huge, and rises quickly as attention moves on to the next news item. There are simply too many messages competing for our attention for us to adopt and pass along every one. So the best way to get buzz is to create a message so shocking that it will jack up the message generation rate rapidly. And ideally, you’d do this during an event where mass attention is heightened — which will boost cycle time as well.

This is why JC Penney tweeted drunkenly during the Super Bowl (in what turned out to be a promotion for mittens). This is why Miley Cyrus shook her booty in a skin-toned suit to recast her persona during the MTV Video Music Awards. Shock + major period of mass attention = high potential for meme success.

These were not crazy mistakes of judgment, but calculated attempts to boost the meme propagation rate of a brand, to get everyone in society talking about an issue, with the frosting of controversy spread over the deep cake of commerce.

It works sometimes, but with so much meme competition, marketers will have to continue to raise the shock value.

Here’s to seeing Barbie next year covered only in body paint.

# What if Facebook ‘Likes’ don’t matter?

Blogger Derek Muller is upset. He paid Facebook to promote his page, and instead got what he believes to be 80,000 fake Likes. You know. From supposed Like “click farms” in Egypt or Pakistan, where the same type of people who call you at home to warn you about a Microsoft update on your PC if only you’ll give them your banking password also click on millions of Likes. Muller’s beef seems to be that Facebook is complicit in enabling such “Like fraud,” in order to push marketers to pay for more real advertising.

The logic is a bit complex, but here goes: Marketers think “Likes” are important on Facebook because they supposedly open the door to a free form of advertising popularly known as “engagement.” (Brand “engagement” is what you do when you try to sell someone something while pretending to be their friend.) When a consumer “Likes” your brand page on Facebook, your brand updates can then organically appear in the user’s stream without you paying Facebook (just as your personal updates appear in front of your friends), and this is IMPORTANT because what marketer wouldn’t want a free onramp into a friendly consumer mind?

Alas, but if many or most Facebook Likes are faked, you’ll appear in fewer user streams organically, you’ll see worse response results, so you’ll have to pay for actual Facebook advertising. And thus, the fraud theory goes, Mark Zuckerberg would laugh all the way to the bank.

The Washington Post noted in covering this fraud claim that Facebook explicitly bans anyone from paying click farms to artificially boost follower counts, but Muller thinks “page administrators are nevertheless circumventing those rules, creating a market for legions of fake Facebook users that just click ‘Like’ all day.”

Muller actually pulled some hard data to back his case. He spent \$50 to get more Facebook Likes, and got a boatload … from Egypt, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, countries that he suggests are just where fraudulent click-farms are common. Um, that really doesn’t look good.

But it doesn’t matter, because Likes have little value anyway

What’s the problem with this complaint? First, no one can prove Facebook is encouraging this, and Facebook is by all accounts fighting spam in its ecosystem just as Matt Cutts over at Google wants to shut down SEO blackhatters gaming paid search. And second, Like spam doesn’t matter — because Facebook “Likes” have almost zero value anyway, and any marketers with smarts will want to pay for advertising in the platform, ignoring Likes altogether.

Here’s the truth, marketers:

1. Likes are fleeting. A consumer who clicks “Like” on your brand has thought about you fleetingly for 0.5 seconds. This is not “engagement” or a “relationship.” This is a consumer mental hiccup. The currency of the thousands of Likes on your brand page in Facebook is worth, oh, about zero cents. It’s the brand equivalent of a personal Klout score, a feel-good, game mechanics points system that doesn’t mean anything beyond pixel dust.

2. Likes translate into infinitesimal advertising value. Facebook wisely limits how often you can go flying around in the main big Newsfeed among your “Liking” brand followers, because Facebook users would get upset if every other post was a big ad, so you ain’t getting in much, anyway. Let’s assume you get to 100,000 Likes. And then 100,000 users see you twice in the next month, as you re-chase them in their Facebook feeds for 200,000 impressions. That’s a whopping low 2x frequency per month, hardly enough to influence anyone. If these free impressions were translated into advertising value at say a \$2 CPM, you’ve just gained a whopping \$400 in free advertising. That should move a lot of Ford trucks, right? Um, no.

3. Paid Facebook advertising, by comparison, translates into huge value, if you point respondents to your regular brand website set up for sales or lead generation. Every \$400 you spend on real Facebook advertising will drive approximately 300 people to your website at a \$1.33 cost per click. If only 1% convert to a sale, you have a \$133 cost per customer acquisition. The local Ford guy will play that game every day of the week.

Sorry, blogger who paid for Likes. Yes, fraud is a nasty problem, and it looks like Facebook may have to address all the suspicious “Likes” popping up from suspect areas of the world. But with real Facebook advertising working so well, it hardly needs to trick you to get you to spend more media dollars there.

# The mobile future of variable pricing

Gregory Mesaros of eWinWin recently won a patent to provide consumers with variable pricing via wireless devices. This simple concept makes perfect sense when you consider how inefficient pricing normally is. Imagine, for instance, Sally and Sam are walking down a street. Sally is very hungry, and Sam isn’t. A hamburger stand nearby offers burgers for \$5. Sally would be willing to pay \$7 … and Sam only \$4, based on their current state of mind. But because the stand charges everyone the same \$5, only Sally buys a burger.

Now, if a sensor could pick up their smartphone IDs and understand somehow their recent behavior and desires, the hamburger stand might be able to beam Sally and Sam different prices for the same meal. \$7 for Sally, \$4 for Sam, would entice both to buy — and the outlet would make \$11 for two sales, doubling sales volume (two) and boosting margins (since the average burger price is now \$5.50). Everyone is happy.

Variable pricing is not new, of course: hard negotiators end up paying less for cars that softies; grocery stores use coupons to entice price-conscious shoppers to pay a little less for cans of soup; consumers rushing to the mall on Black Friday may pay less for a new TV. But real-time, instantaneous variable pricing has eluded marketers before now. Mesaros’ patent would match behavioral tracking of consumers with pre-set options for prices and offers, and seek to find the best instant match.

Does this seem unfair? Perhaps. Uber, the new crowd-driven taxi service, has received bad press for jacking up rates during periods of peak consumer demand such as snowstorms in major cities. Subscription companies such as cable and utilities often face customer churn when one customer realizes she is paying more than her neighbor for equivalent service. But one-price-fits-all strategy is a holdover from the early 1900s when there was no scientific method to efficiently match the cost of a good with the variable desire of an individual consumer. Regarding fairness, one could also argue it is unfair to charge more for a good than many are willing to bear, pushing you away from potential purchases. Making one person pay \$7 so another could pay \$4 for a sandwich would optimize the utility of a transaction for everyone.

With mobile technology now being mapped to personal datasets, soon, we may all pay different prices for everything.