Don’t interrupt, use word of mouse

Finished reading new-age marketing mogul Seth Godin‘s Unleashing the Ideavirus. The first trick to releasing an ideavirus is to call your concept a peculiar name, such as “ideavirus”. The second trick is to then make people read 104 pages of your book to find out what you’re talking about and realize that “ideavirus” is just your pet name for “word of mouth advertising, via the Internet”. Next, litter the pages with URLs of past books you’ve written and companies you are connected to. Step 4: PROFIT!

So Seth practices what he preaches, but what he preaches is not earth-shattering. Current advertising techniques, which he calls “Interruption Marketing”, basically involves pouring scads of money into commercials and ads in an attempt to harass people into buying something. Spammers and telemarketers take interruption marketing to its logical extremes by shotgunning ads to unwilling eyeballs and ears, with the absurd notion that any exposure is positive exposure. As customer resistance increases, marketers just turn up the heat – which is why you now see adverts hanging over urinals, bigger and more garish web banners, and corporate names stuck on sport stadiums. And we were this close to getting billboards on gravestones, I kid you not.

However, Godin argues that marketing through memes costs much less money and can be much more effective. By quietly distributing it to the trendsetters, key influencers or “sneezers”, your idea can spread to a large target audience (the “hive”). To keep the idea contagious, the idea must be easy to pass along (“smoothness”) and aimed at the right people (“vector”). The beauty is, everyone that is targeted by the ideavirus actually want to hear your message. Godin cites Hotmail’s little sig at the bottom of each Hotmail email and Amazon’s referral program as choice examples.

The Internet has launched a many-to-many proliferation of digital samizdat. Every day, people online are dissecting and discussing products and services. As David Weinberger passionately evoked on CSPAN (Jon Udell helpfully provides the pertinent part of the video here), when he was looking for a washer/dryer, he went to “every company’s website…Google”. In minutes, he discovered an ongoing discussion on the very model he was looking for. The commentary was merciless, unsanitized, and most importantly – human and trustworthy.

Several companies have tried their hand at creating their own memes or viral campaigns, such as Burger King’s cheeky Subservient Chicken website, or Volvo’s faux documentary “The Mystery of Dalaro”. A groundbreaking Internet scavenger hunt based on Kubrick and Spielberg’s A.I. spawned an entire fanbase called the Cloudmakers to solve it. (The storyline in the game is far more interesting than the one in the movie too, IMHO).

One company, BzzAgent LLC, believes they can make a business out of paying “buzzers” to become digitally-accelerated Mary Kays.

Marketers ignore the many-to-many social phenomenon at their peril, as the movie industry found out. If you make a crappy movie, everyone will know before you say “Gigli”. Deceiving your customers is even worse; those who think they can artificially create an ideavirus may be in for a nasty surprise. Ideaviruses cut both ways; all the spindoctoring in the world won’t wash. “Any attempts to escape the new transparency will ultimately prove futile,” David Kilpatrick writes. “Build a business that will not be injured by the disclosure of data.”

Can it work in a positive manner? It depends on the idea and its execution. Amusingly, half of the dotcoms Godin cites as sucessfully using the ideavirus had perished shortly after this book was published in 2001. Even Godin fumbles when he released “The Big Red Fez” in 2002. He promised Ideavirus readers he would release the book for free online to generate buzz, or he would write an explanation of why his ideavirus strategy failed. If you check that site today, there’s no ebook, and a link promising the said explanation only goes to his blog’s main page.

So, basically the book was on tactical marketing methods designed to make you part with more of your hard-earned money. But since advertising is here to stay, I’d rather have the less annoying kinds.