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Unleashing the Ideavirus

Author: Seth Godin

Publisher: Dobbs Ferry, NY: Do You Zoom, 2000

ISBN: Center for Bu

Summary:"The best way to cut through the fog of clutter, Godin argues, is to embed your offer in an idea, and then let your customers (or even better, your products) do your marketing for you."

I still don't know if Toyota's newest car is the Pry-us or the Pree-us. I know it's spelled Prius, but that doesn't help me much when I'm talking. So why is this a problem? Because it is such a good car that I want to tell people about it. The Prius is a hybrid vehicle that runs on a combination of gasoline and battery power. The batteries charge up in the normal course of driving - whenever you brake, for example. As a result, this car gets over seventy miles to the gallon. If Toyota would only make it easier for me, I would spread the word on their behalf. Even better, what if the car spread the word on its own behalf? Could you imagine a novel-looking car with a digital bumper sticker that said "I'm getting 72 mpg this week how about you?" As Willy Loman's wife said, attention must be paid. But not, alas, quite yet.

Compare that with Napster, the digital devil incarnate, if we are to believe Jack Valenti and the aging rock band Metallica. Napster is the software that allows people to download music from their computers to other peoples' over the internet. The remarkable thing about Napster, apart from its ability to bring together strange bedfellows, is how quickly it took root. In the space of less than six months, it became a standard component of the twenty-year-old's life. Without the benefit of millions of dollars of television ads, or magazine ads, or even banner ads on web pages. The reason Napster spread so quickly was because its users were the people marketing it. College students, in particular, had internet access, lots of bandwidth, relatively more time than money on their hands, voracious appetites for recorded music, and communities where they could spread the word about this new source of music. And so Napster spread like a virus.

Word of mouth is the second oldest marketing device there is. But now (forgive me) word of mouse is more powerful. On-line, a person can be a member of more communities, with more members, that he speaks to more frequently, than ever before. This explosion of networks has an odd consequence. The bigger the network, the greater the rewards to the winner. Amazon, Priceline, and eBay account for 95% of the market value of all business-to-consumer internet companies. Or, in the world of philology, the delightfully-named Zipf's Law says that the most frequently used word in a language (in English, it's "the") is used ten times as much as the tenth most popular word, and a hundred times as much as the one hundredth. This winner-take-all aspect of networked systems puts pressure on firms to win big by being first. Uninspired marketers react by buying more air time on TV and more banner ads on web pages. In other words, more clutter, attracting less attention. In the last year, the clickthrough rates for banner ads has dropped by 85%. The most used button on my television's remote control is the one that says "mute."

This clutter is the business equivalent of Clausewitz's fog of battle. The challenge is to cut through the clutter and get the attention of the customer. Photographs of city streets a hundred years ago show a profusion of shopkeepers' signs. Magazines from fifty years ago contain advertisements for companies and products that have long been forgotten. Word of mouth campaigns cut through the clutter by connecting product information with personal endorsements. The best endorsements come from satisfied customers, which raises three questions: how do you get a customer, how do you make a customer satisfied, and how do you get him to share his feelings with other potential customers. The first question belongs to Peter Drucker, who said that the one purpose for a business was to have a customer. The second question belongs to every marketing consultant that walks the face of the earth. The third question belongs to Seth Godin, who wrote the book (as it were) on Permission Marketing, and who has now written Unleashing the Ideavirus.

The best way to cut through the fog of clutter, Godin argues, is to embed your offer in an idea, and then let your customers (or even better, your products) do your marketing for you. Google.com became one of the leading search engines with an advertising budget of exactly zero. The new VW Beetle was hard to miss once it hit the streets. The Macarena arrived from who knows where, and all too quickly. So why do some "ideas" spread quickly and pervasively and others don't? And, I find myself asking, how can I make my "ideas" the movers and shakers in a winner-take-all economy?

Godin has not discovered a cure for the common cold, but he has observed some of the malady's best practices. How does the cold virus spread? Sneezes. Who spreads more colds? People who sneeze a lot, in crowded places, surrounded by other people who are prone to public sneezing themselves. The virus gets spread, with people doing all the work for it. What a great business model for the virus. In the macroscopic world, we have a word for sneezers - opinion leaders. Other words are influencers, early-adopters, networkers, machers, and fashion editors. People who spread an idea, to use Godin's terms, are sneezers - powerfulsneezers and promiscuous sneezers. The powerful are people who expect to be influential and who have a reputation to maintain. Martha Stewart, or Madonna, or Michael Jordan. The promiscuous are people who don't mind selling anything to anybody. Real estate brokers, or Amazon "affiliates," or Priceline investor William Shatner. To get the two groups of sneezers to spread your idea, you need two different strategies. The powerful want their reputations reinforced, while the promiscuous want money.

Assuming that you have identified the people who will sneeze on your behalf, the next problem is making sure the ideavirus is easy to share. Does it go from sneezer to sneezer with a certain smoothness, or does it take effort on the sneezer's part? The best example of smoothness is Hotmail. This free e-mail service effectively marketed itself, going from zero to ten million users in under a year. At the bottom of every e-mail sent was the invitation "Get Your Private, Free Email from Hotmail at www.hotmail.com." Every time somebody used Hotmail, she was also marketing it. Endorsement without effort from either the sender or the recipient. Easy for the sender, because she didn't have to do a thing. Easy for the recipient because he was exactly one mouse click away from signing up for the service himself.

The fastest way to spread an idea is with a good example, as Ronald Reagan showed with his notorious "welfare queen" stories. In the case of Ideavirus, the best example is how Godin is marketing the book itself. Before the book was available in bookstores, it was available online, at www.ideavirus.com. Unlike Stephen King's online efforts, it was free. When I read it and liked it, there, on my computer screen, was a button that invited me to email this link to a friend. So far Godin had reached a few sneezers of limited spray-power, like me. To reach a wider group, his next step was to publish a cover story in Fast Company, the periodical of preference for the new economy crowd. With good editing and distracting graphics, he makes it easy to catch what he's saying: "Here's a big idea: Ideas are driving the economy. Here's a bigger idea: Ideas that spread the fastest win. Here's the biggest ideas: You can get your customers to spread your ideas for you!" A week later, lots of sneezers are talking about the book. Eventually, the book is available in hardback, at $40 a pop. Even though the ideas have been circulating for free, customers now have the chance to pay for them. Finally, the author will hit the speaking circuit, charging people to hear what they've already read. And (I've seen him speak) it's worth it.

This is the money paradox in action: that the sooner you ask for money, the less you'll make. In a way there's nothing new about this. Smart merchants have been giving out free samples for thousands of years. Marketing classes talk about the sequence of awareness, trial, and purchase. But in the connected economy, the power of networks to spread ideas increases the payoffs for the really successful ones. The laws of tipping points mean that when you start charging is more important than what you charge. Also, different versions of the same information should be priced differently. It's hard to get paid for an idea, but readers will pay for two things - speed ("Can I finish reading this sooner if it's in a book I can take to bed?") and souvenirs ("Won't this be a nice memento on my bookshelf?"). Audiences will pay for an experience. And consulting clients will pay for advice. But none of those transactions will happen if the idea hasn't spread. The first goal of marketing is to have a "virusworthy" idea, a business proposition that can self-replicate. The second goal is to get it in front of the right group of people. And the third is to give the sneezers the tools they need to spread the virus smoothly, quickly, and (in some sense) profitably.

The Ideavirus is a great framework for planing or analyzing a new product launch. But do we really need another framework? Is this one ten times better than whatever other framework it will be crowding out? Yes, I think so. The landscape in the networked economy is different than in the industrial economy. The only way to win is to get the network to win for you. Even though it might seem that Unleashing the Ideavirus is a book about marketing strategy, it is really much more. In the Information Age, the basis of competition isn't products (better mousetraps, for instance), it's ideas. How ideas spread and take root will spell success or failure throughout a firm's value chain. The best ideas are ones that people can share with each other. The real failure of communism was the wastefulness of human talent, the naive belief that good planning could come from the top down. An enterprise that succeeds is one where good ideas can spread quickly, because they are embraced by people who can spread them.

The best books tell stories that are both brand new and that have always been true. Of course it makes sense to let people try a sample of what you're selling. Of course influential people can help you more than nobodies. Of course a catchy phrase is better than a mouthful of mumbo. Unleashing the Ideavirus says that these things have always been true, but that there are changes going on in the economy that will make them more important. Once you get the point ("you can make ideas spread like viruses"), you can start being a sneezer yourself. And, it's not what you know that counts, and it's not even who you know. It's how much you communicate when you sneeze. Gesundheit.


©  Center for Business Innovation, Cambridge MA.