vm-people: Mr. Marsden, what is your understanding of Viral Marketing?
Marsden: In contemporary consumer society, getting onto "attention agendas" of consumers is increasingly difficult given the three defining trends of
modern consumer society: Overload, Rush and No Logo.
"Overload" means overcrowded and overloaded markets and minds, "Rush" means time obsessed society with shrinking lifecycles. And "No Logo" means a marketing literate consumer base disaffected from the hype and spin of the marketing machine - as described in the books Data Smog (Shenk), Faster (Gleick) and No Logo (Klein).
The result is that the consumer mind is "closed for business" insofar as marketing initiatives are increasingly ignored or rejected. One of the few
remaining ways to cut through the overload, rush and disaffection and get onto peoples attention agendas is by getting onto peoples "conversational agendas". This can be done by ensuring that marketing initiatives are "beddable and spreadable" (desirable and communicable). A spreadable idea is one that is "walkable and talkable" and tends to play on our emotional hot buttons - our deepest fears and wildest hopes, and our cognitive cold buttons - mental short-cuts we use to make sense of an increasingly
meaningless world. Crafting such contagions is, in my opinion, the legitimate and realistic goal of viral marketing.
vm-people: How would you define the term exactly?
Marsden: Viral Marketing is the use of "beddable and spreadable" ideas that sell themselves in order to sell a product or service. The goal is to grab
attention by getting onto conversational agendas.
vm-people: Which contexts played a part in the development and diffusion of VM as a marketing tool in your opinion?
Marsden: The context of frustration! Mass marketing is producing an ever decreasing return on investment - the American Advertising Association says that of the
5000 branded communications we are exposed to each day, we notice less than 2%, and less than 0.1% have any perceptual impact at all. Four out of every
five marketing innovations fail - and are withdrawn less than 3 months from first hitting the shelves. This context of frustration is a product of
three meta-trends in consumer society to which marketing is struggling to adapt; Overload, Rush and No Logo.
vm-people: Why do you think that evolutionary thinking can give a new impulse for marketing?
Marsden: The evolutionary message is simple, and brings into stark relief the marketing challenge of today: Survival of the Fittest: Only those brands
best adapted to this changing competitive context characterised by overload, rush and disaffection will survive.
vm-people: What makes a marketing message more contagious or fitter than others?
Marsden: As above - a sticky or as I call it an "infectious idea" is one that is beddable and spreadable, usually because it plays on our emotional hot buttons - our deepest fears and wildest hopes, and our cognitive cold buttons - mental short-cuts we use to make sense of an increasingly meaningless world.
vm-people: How can you increase the contagious potential of an advertising message?
Marsden: Workshops with "connected and respected" consumers, Malcolm Gladwell calls them "The Few", who act as gatekeepers for the diffusion of ideas through a population. These Contagion Indexing workshops measure the beddability and spreadability of advertising messages, where spreadability is defined in terms of being walkable and talkable - thus measuring the capacity of the idea to get onto conversational agendas
vm-people: Which possibilities are there to identify those gatekeepers?
Marsden: There are established recruitment questionnaires for these people - (i.e. Godin's Sneezers) - that recruit based on the two key criteria - that they are "connected and respected" (i.e. have wide social networks - and are respected within them - and therefore have influence.
vm-people: Which techniques do you use to motivate these "sneezers" to spread the message?
Marsden: Incentivise them! It's all about self-interest - give them money or status or both.
vm-people: In order to strengthen brands against competitors, brandgenetics uses a technique called meme-mapping. How exactly do you use this technique?
Marsden: We use meme-mapping to unpack a concept or brand into the set of key associations that define it: memes are units of memory stored as associations, and can be thought of as "genes of meaning". We do this in order to craft our consumer contagions (marketing message) in a manner that makes meaningful and positive connections - associations, with the target population. It is an application of what Gladwell calls "The Power of Context", only by adapting a message to the context in which it is interpreted can it have any meaningful impact.
vm-people: Can you please name an example?
Marsden: We recently did a meme mapping project for American Express in order to inform how a new secure online payment service should be ideally positioned and communicated. By crafting the marketing message that built positive associations whilst addressed negative associations, we developed a meaningful proposition that made powerful connections with the target audience.
vm-people: What is most often being criticised in Viral Marketing is the lack of measurability of a campaign's success. Do you agree with this objection?
Marsden: Marketers and advertisers have a vested interest in not being able to directly measure success of their initiatives - viral or otherwise - they have a lot to lose. In a marketing world built on hype, spin and sound bites - real accountability is a dangerous thing.
vm-people: Which tools do you use to measure the effect of a campaign?
Marsden: We pre-test using our Contagion Indexing workshops - as described above
vm-people: Critics say that a huge success like the campaign for the film "The Blair Witch Project" could not be brought about deliberately. Is it possible at all to launch a marketing virus intentionally or is such an undertaking doomed to fail from the beginning?
Marsden: The problem with Crafting Consumer Contagions is the non-linearity gets to you - as Gladwell points out - little things make big differences, and it is impossible to predict how this non-linearity will impact upon your plans.
Once you release a contagion into the community - you have little control of how it spreads or mutates. But what you can do is seed the contagion with the Few, having "tweaked and trialled" it to be as infectious as possible, and ensure that is adapted to the context into which it is released. So no, the rationale is not doomed, but neither can it produce a "sure thing": Instead, crafting consumer contagions should be thought of as a theoretically informed attempt to cut through the overload, rush and
disaffection in a manner that increases the probability of success rather
than guarantees it.
vm-people: Marketing author Clay Shirky recently wrote in Business 2.0: "One year from now viral marketing will simply mean word of mouth." What is your personal forecast for 2002?
Marsden: One year from now, the label viral marketing will have been buried along with the dot bombs with which it is associated. Apart from failing to live up to the hype and spin generated around it, the marketing communications industry and the mass media have a vested interest in seeing its demise: There is no money in it for them. On the other hand, the concept of crafting consumer contagions and spreading infectious ideas, using contagion psychology and the insights of Diffusion of Innovations research is here to stay.
Paul Marsden, Brand Genetics
Interview: © vm-people 2001