In 2009 the U.S. Department of Defense’s research arm DARPA issued a seemingly impossible challenge: To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Internet, it would station 10 huge, red weather balloons at random, undisclosed locations around the United States and offer a $40,000 prize to first team of people to find them all. The challenge was daunting by traditional intelligence-gathering standards. A roaming team of 10,000 people might take a year to find all the red balloons. DARPA built the puzzle to see if modern social-media networks might solve what government spies could not, and also to generate ideas on how social networks might help during natural disasters when mass communications or even 911 systems might fail.
The winning MIT team found all the balloons in less than 9 hours. How?
In his remarkable book “Social Physics,” MIT professor Alex Pentland explains he used theories of how ideas flow through people to create action to solve the puzzle. A traditional marketer might have realized the $40k prize wasn’t enough to get millions of people looking, so would have spent $4 million in national advertising with the $40k prize as an offer. Others would have tried PR, or pleas for a common good, or hiring thousands of students to work for pennies. Or maybe hacked weather satellites.
Pentland instead came up with a brilliant team-building idea — where he motivated individuals to influence others to search, and not just to win a prize. He divided the $40,000 prize into 10 prizes of $4,000 for each found balloon … but further split each individual balloon prize into the referring networks of all who found it. The actual person who found a balloon would get $2,000. The person who invited him or her to play would get $1,000. The person who invited that person to search would get $500. And the person above them $250 … etc. The chain looked like this:
Why did people then suddenly participate on the MIT team? In post-contest interviews, MIT found people thought if they invited others, they were doing their friends a favor … similar to sharing a lottery ticket. In other words, they weren’t incentivized to win a prize, but instead, to build a bigger network of participants.
The moored balloons were set up at 10 a.m. on Dec. 5, 2009, randomly located across the 3.8 million square miles of the United States. More than 4,000 search teams had signed up. But within hours, Pentland’s MIT group had enlisted 5,000 core volunteers who shared the network incentives to an average of 400 friends each, creating a network of 2 million people who … found all the balloons in 8 hours, 52 minutes and 41 seconds.
The underlying strategy is networks of peers are extremely influential; so to move people, marketers must learn to move the network connections. (Consider: If you play golf, you may wear a golf jacket you purchased after seeing an ad. But the reason you play golf is that you grew up with a father or college buddies surrounding you with the idea that golf is a fun game. The network of peers around you is what inspired you at the core.)
Pentland suggests that if you find ways to motivate people to share ideas across network connections, and not just respond, you are more likely to make an impact.