Spreading Your Ideas

UPDATED: February 4, 2009
PUBLISHED: February 4, 2009

The ideavirus formula has eight coefficients. Each one represents not only a concept, but a variable you can tweak to make your idea more viral and create the elements you need to drive your idea into the community.

No two industries rely on the eight fundamental principles in precisely the same way. But virtually every ideavirus I’ve ever seen uses some of these principles in an extraordinary way, and just about every one could be improved if it expanded further into the other areas.


The Eight:

Some people are more likely to tell their friends about a great new idea. These people are at the heart of the ideavirus. Identifying and courting sneezers is a key success factor, and this is the area where many brand marketers have the most control and, thus, the most influence. By focusing on who you’re choosing to sneeze on your behalf, you build the foundation for your virus.

There are two kinds of sneezers: powerful and promiscuous. Powerful sneezers are certainly the most seductive; the right word from the right sneezer can make all the difference to your virus. If a powerful sneezer “trips” and is perceived as a promiscuous sneezer—a sneezer for hire—their effectiveness is reduced. But if they can maintain their position, and at the same time sell books and magazines or sheets and towels, they’ve effectively leveraged their fame.

People are not one, amorphous mass. We’re self-organized into groups, or hives, that have several things in common: a way to communicate among ourselves; spoken or unspoken rules and standards; a common history; and fashion leaders. The mistake that’s so easy to make is to get greedy as you choose your hive and say, “This product is for everyone” or “Anyone can benefit from this idea.” It’s far better to pick smaller hives and conquer them a few at a time. Selecting a hive that respects the core value of your virus is a critical first step in laying the foundation for promoting the idea.

Once your idea starts coursing through a hive again and again and again, you’ll have a piling-on effect. People will want to be exposed to your idea, just because everyone else in the hive they respect is talking about it. Choose your market by identifying a hive that has a problem and the right concentration of sneezers, the right amplified networking, the right high velocity of communication and, most of all, an appropriate vacuum.

The velocity is a measure of how fast the idea spreads from one party to another. If the velocity of a virus isn’t fast enough, a competitor may leapfrog past you into a new hive before you can get there, dominating as the “original” in that market.

You must be online. How did the Internet change our economy so dramatically? It increased the velocity of viruses in various hives. Before the Internet, it took weeks or months for a contractor to talk with suppliers before building an office tower. Now, he can do it in just a day using the Net.

An idea doesn’t spread evenly and nicely through a population; it usually follows a vector. It could be a movement toward a certain geographic or demographic audience, for example. Sometimes an ideavirus starts in a subgroup and then breaks through that niche into the public consciousness. Other times, it works its way through a group and then just stops.

When you create an idea and lay the groundwork for it to become a virus, it pays to study the vector you’d like it to follow. Why? Because there’s plenty you can do to influence its vector, and the vector you choose will have a lot to do with who “gets” the virus. The vector controls the hives through which the idea flows.

The medium is probably the most overlooked part of ideavirus planning and construction. It’s so obvious, we often don’t see it. In order to move, an idea has to be encapsulated in a medium. It could be a picture, a phrase, a written article, a movie, even a mathematical formula.

The medium used for transmitting the ideavirus determines how smooth it is as well as the velocity of its growth. A medium is not a manifesto. Every idea is a manifesto trying to make its point, and the medium is the substance that the idea lives in.

The goal, of course, is to have an ideavirus so smooth that once someone is exposed to it, they’re instantly hooked, and a virus so powerful that all it takes is one guitar lick on the radio, one phrase in a book review, one glimpse of a Web site, and you completely and totally “get it.” And not only do you get it, but you want it now and forever.

While you can aspire to make your product Medusa-like, it’s a mistake to spend all your time wishing for it to happen. The odds are long, indeed—especially if your product is not groundbreaking. The longer it takes someone to get the basic concept behind your idea, the less Medusa-like it is. But often, that’s a good thing. Real change, and the profit that goes with it, often comes from unsettling ideas that significantly alter the way people interact with each other and with your company. And those ideas aren’t as smooth as others.

Some ideas stick around a long time with each person, influencing them (and those they sneeze on) for months or years to come. Others have a much shorter half-life before they fade out. If you want long-term profit, don’t pick a fad that will fade away.

Word-of-mouth alone isn’t enough. Unamplified word-of-mouth dies off too soon to be much good to the average business. The goal of a marketer creating an ideavirus is to create a system that allows the positive word-of-mouth to be amplified (and the negative to be dumped!).