# Zombies will win in the apocalypse. Math proves it.

A while ago I wrote about the formula for “going viral,” or how marketers can ensure that their message will scale to the masses. It’s simple math, really:

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

Or put another way, for each cycle of contact between people, the message generation (passalong) must exceed the absorption (people who don’t give a damn and stop passing it along). This is how some memes — cultural units of society such as the current fad among youth to wear baseball caps with straight brims instead of curved — move through society. It’s how you get sick with the flu and how computer viruses spread.

Unfortunately, viral passalong also works incredibly well for zombies.

Zombies, a.k.a. the living undead, have been a concept for nearly 4,000 years, dating back to the ancient poem the Epic of Gilgamesh in the 18th century BC. That story was about battles with monsters, quests for immortality, and the goddess Ishtar breaking down the gates of the Netherworld to “let the dead go up to eat the living.” (That’s right, there are no new ideas coming out of Hollywood.) Mary Shelley rebooted the idea with her novel Frankenstein and we’ve been afraid of zombies ever since. But the basic construct is most interesting today, with our planet swarming with nearly 7 billion people and fears of potential pandemic flu rising: In most modern tales, zombies begin with a lethal outbreak of a virus that rapidly spreads through the population, leaving small bands of uninfected human survivors trying to, well, survive.

Which brings us to 2009 and the brilliant academic research paper produced, half in jest, by the University of Ottawa. The theme may be silly, but the math is real. The authors predicted that in any timescale, a population of uninfected people if paired with a population of infected zombies would eventually be wiped out. Or as the paper cheerfully stated, “coexistence between humans and zombies/infected is … not possible.” The math is complex, but basically if there are two populations and in any encounter the bad can infect the good with any contact — a 100% zombie virus “message” passalong rate — statistically the outbreak will continue to spread. You will die. The only hope would be if humans developed an antidote, which could raise the absorption rate (the portion of humans touched who don’t pass zombification along), which in turn would not allow humans to overtake the zombies but a small population of normal people could survive.

Zombies are a cultural meme that cannot be stopped. Zombies are the ultimate viral meme that wins, because in any contact, nothing slows it. This also explains stupid straight-brimmed baseball caps.

# Why Underdog flies (the formula for going viral)

A joke inside ad agencies is yes, we can make concepts “go viral,” but we charge extra for that. Last night Seth Casteel’s photos of underwater dogs started popping up everywhere in Facebook and Twitter streams, without agency help. Seth has been around for a while — his website has a quote from Cesar Millan, and Seth had a guest segment on the TV show Extra! back in November 2009.

So why now? Why, for a fleeting moment, are people crazy about sharing pics of dogs baring fangs underwater?

Back in 2010, I defined the mathematical formula for viral success.

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 first 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

The truth is no one can plan or predict how an idea will fit into the cultural context of the moment, or how the pattern of complex passalongs leads to the viral success where the share rate exceeds the stall rate of transmission. For people to get excited enough to share an idea, it has to resonate against a cultural moment, provide a frisson of entertainment or shock, and stand out from competing ideas. This is one reason why marketers spend north of \$3 million for Super Bowl ads, because the consumer ecosystem is primed to act on exciting ideas and share them (but only if the ideas are exciting, unlike most ads in this year’s Super Bowl).

Yesterday was a cold February Friday in the Northern Hemisphere in the dead zone weeks after the Christmas holidays and weeks before spring. People are bored, and perhaps funny images of dogs in summery water gives us hope that blasé winter will end. So we share. No one knows why. You can’t predict it. Some things just make a splash.

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.

Originally posted on G+.

# Reebok ungets the viral thing

This Reebok video is making the rounds in ad circles as an example of what not to do in the viral space. You know, create an amateur video with crazy happenings, launch it on YouTube and watch the viewers scale to millions — except in this case it is blatantly professionally produced. For complete details on the mistakes made trying to show a guy stumbling across Ralph Macchio to showcase sneakers, see the post by Angela Natividad, who filed it under heavy wincing.

The deeper question is, if this is a mistake, what is a brand to do? You can’t sit back and hope amateurs create something superbly authentic that will rise up the viral charts … yet if you leadenly produce something that almost looks real, but is fake, you get trashed by all of us who are wise to your manipulative moves. This may sound strange when the entire world of advertising is based on manipulating opinion, but it actually makes sense — because the problem here is the source of the information has been disguised. Humans make judgments based on where they think data is coming from; if your best friend tells you Toyotas still lead in quality, you may believe her, but if a salesperson says the same, you take it with a grain of salt. Advertising for decades has been put in boxes that are cleared marked as “source: someone trying to sell you,” so you can sit back during commercial breaks knowing there is an agenda. But hiding the source creates confusion — a level of cognitive dissonance, a failed ability to score the data with a key metric, the point of origination that tells you the motive of what is coming in.

Polluted ecosystems

Follow this logic, and quasi-marketing-almost-authentic material ticks people off because they don’t know how to judge it. Are the shoes really being worn by a former Karate Kid movie star? Is this knowledge something true that we can use for future reference? Um, no. This is why we vote paid posts and sponsored conversations are failures of communication, because they manipulate people without being clear, and end up polluting the entire information ecosystem. Advertising works because it’s potentially useful information with the source clearly identified. Social media works because it’s helpful references from people you trust. Blend the two, and you seed confusion and potentially irritation. This is why the usually helpful blogger Chris Brogan got spanked by his followers over a paid Kmart Christmas post.

So how does any marketer solve the viral puzzle? David Armano has suggested that to become remarkable, you must do something that people will remark upon. Rather than fake a creative encounter, do something truly creative with your business that others can’t help but talk about. It’s not easy building real authentic news that others will report on, but hey, that’s why they call the news new.

# Get me one of those viral things that lasts 6 days

Analytics shop TubeMogul points out the half-life of a YouTube video is now only 6 days, meaning in less than a week an online flick has burned through half its potential audience. After 20 days, any given video has pulled 75% of its total eyeballs. This isn’t great news for creative agencies focused on selling viral potential — and points out consumers’ ADHD is accelerating, since back in 2008 a YouTube audience lasted at least twice as long.

Don’t fret, though, viral promoters — newsprint and radio ain’t doing so hot, either.

# No, your video won’t go viral

Mike Arauz and Bud Caddell spoke at SXSW on why most online videos fail to scale, and engaged their audience in a “Web Video Thunderdome” to debate why. They suggest: Be brief. Be odd. Be funny. Be random. Try repeatedly. And recognize that even if you get all that right, in the online sea of wavering interest, you’ll still likely get only 100 hits.

Via Marci Ikeler.

# Yo CMO

If your boss still don’t get Twitter then show him this little initiative cooked up by John Winsor, former creative chief at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. (We think it was him. This is Twitter. Things evolve here.) Toss a comment on Twitter with the hashtag #yocmo and your thought will pop up in a stream of comments telling chief marketing officers exactly what they should do with their business.

Will CMOs listen? To the top complaints or concepts, yes. Ideas that resonate get retweeted, passed along by others, scaling until potentially tens of thousands of people are telling Netflix they want to move past DVDs to a web-streaming service that actually works. It’s an instant inbox. A crowdsourced product lab. A complaint discovery database. And chances are good that if you strike a chord, the CMO in question will write you back.

# London Underground: To save your rep, you have 4 hours

When Jonathan MacDonald saw a London Underground worker yelling at an elderly man, he whipped out a video camera, posted the clip via Twitter, and within 24 hours the story had made page 1 of London’s Evening Standard. No fists flew, only words, but if you read MacDonald’s blog post you realize the senior citizen was being abused for having his arm caught a few seconds earlier in a train door — a nice, bile-filled moment for London Underground customer service. The transit worker named Ian, at the end of the clip, shouts “sling him under a train.”

The faster the rise, the steeper the fall

What’s intriguing about such viral phenomena is the front end of the public interest curve matches the back — meaning the faster the spike, the less time you have to react. And things will spike; millions of consumers are now walking around your organization’s touchpoints armed with tiny video cameras. Dirk Singer of London PR shop Cow notes that today, when bad PR strikes, “you have 48 hours to restore your credibility as after that people generally won’t visit your website to get your point of view.” The balloon boy story of this week is another perfect example. On Thursday this week we drove to Boston for a client meeting and, within the space of 6 hours offline, had missed the entire story of a young boy apparently floating through the air at 7,000 feet in a rickety, homemade balloon contraption. Here’s what public interest looked like on Twitter:

See the challenge? Huge spike at first — by 6 p.m. the day the story broke, balloon boy had peaked at 2.51% of all tweets. Yet by 10 a.m. the next morning, interest had collapsed. If that tale had been your brand, and not a young boy potentially falling out of a weather balloon, would you be able to react in time? If the story broke within social media and not on CNN, would you even notice?

Getting your arms around such chatter isn’t expensive. Here’s a list of 34 free (and 60 some-odd paid) social media monitoring tools to get started. Beyond such tools, you’ll also need to restructure old PR processes to allow your organization to react. There’s no time to craft press releases and run them through legal. You can’t wait to schedule a meeting with the head of HR. So what is your plan? Start listening and planning your response, because like a Mylar balloon over Colorado, what goes up soon comes down.

# Patrick Swayze’s dirtiest dancing

Whether you work in advertising, write editorial or jot blogs, your real goal is to create memes: cultural ideas that (you hope) are passed from one mind to another. More than impressions, readers, or sales, the real goal of any content creator is to influence society — to get everyone to believe his or her idea/religion/product is worth sharing with others. Memes (pronounced like “beams”) were coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which explored the transmission of ideas within culture.

Tonight, scanning Twitter, we learned Patrick Swayze had died 20 minutes before CNN reported it. And then, just as quickly, one of Swayze’s funniest moments began being referenced — his old Saturday Night Live skit with Chris Farley. A meme we can’t forget, or stop laughing at. RIP, Mr. Swayze, and you too, Mr. Farley. Meme on.

# Smashing guitars on the tarmac? United, call Radian6.

Here’s one more reason why your business should monitor social media. Musician Dave Carroll watched in horror from his plane window while luggage guys on the tarmac broke his \$3,500 guitar. So he posted a musical to YouTube yesterday spilling the beans on United; the video already has 15,000 views and is trending fast. The most interesting stat: the YouTube video has spawned 950 comments, most with similar angry stories about airlines customer service. As Darryl Ohrt notes, this is not the kind of viral any business plans for.

Back in the old days, say 2007, if a huge corporation changed a product and you didn’t like it, your options were few: call to complain; write a letter or email to the company president; play your contacts in the press and hope that someone picks up the story.

Times have changed. When Microsoft announced that the 2010 version of its flagship email product Outlook will not render web pages correctly, but instead use Word as a “render engine” to give a strange, squashed version of HTML email inserts such as e-newsletters, users went up in arms. A group started a viral campaign using Twitter and the web site Fixoutlook.org to demand Microsoft rethink its strategy.

An old product change, but new user complaint tools

Microsoft actually made this change already in the 2007 version of Outlook. Prior to that, email newsletters appeared in Outlook laid out exactly like a web page (above left) while the 2007-onward versions of Outlook squished things inside Microsoft Word (above right). The issue will mostly affect marketers who push professionally designed emails into recipients’ In boxes, and could conceivably reduce email newsletter response rates — one of the few remaining bright spots in internet banner advertising CTRs.

User complaints are spreading: The top 10 ad blog Brandflakes led with the headline “Windows users: Another 5 years of crappy email?” and the topic is beginning to trend in Twitter. Microsoft has responded to the campaign noting its Word editor lets users create graphic-rich emails without HTML.

We can only guess at Microsoft’s motive: by entangling email tightly with its PC-based Word software program, it defends the Windows mothership against the rapid movement of users to other online, free, “cloud” communication options.

Unlike back in 2007, Twitter and social media have gotten a giant’s attention. Right or wrong? Look at the choices above and you be the judge.