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Idea Generation and Spreading: How to Create an Idea-Virus

6 October 2015 Den Savelyev
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What's the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient and highly contagious. Once an idea's taken hold in the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, ignore it – but it stays there.

Dominick Cobb, an extractor (“Inception”)

The truth about “Cellulite”

Nicole Ronsard, the owner of a beauty salon in one of the districts of New-York, had been absolutely the same as most beauty salon owners in New-York - until 1973. Competition was tough. Her salon was fighting for every customer, they spent a lot of revenue on ads, but there was no significant growth. And then she wrote a book named “Cellulite” – this is where the journey of this “disease” starts.

A good idea is like a virus, the spread of which is almost independent

However, I must admit there really is a disease called “Cellulitis”. Medics used this term to name a bacterial infection involving the skin. Modern medics avoid using the term “Cellulitis”, and it’s easy to understand – it sounds very similar to the term, which is used by beauticians all over the world in a different meaning.

This old good bacterial infection has been known since the beginning of the 19th century and is called Cellulitis. While all the masks and creams, which we can see on the TV, treat the other “disease” which is called Cellulite (and this is how Nicole Ronsard’s book is titled). The difference is small, but it does exist. And now think about languages like Russian where these two terms have no difference at all.

According to medical opinion, this recently discovered “disease” is absolutely harmless for health. Some of them even go deeper, proving that cellulite is probably a female secondary sexual characteristic which depends on the growth and thickness of subcutaneous fat. Evolution took care of women by rewarding them with thicker fat in certain places than men have. And when it comes to the favourable age for childbearing, the fat starts growing. There is an explanation – perhaps, lack of food was more common for our paleolithic ancestors than for us. As subcutaneous fat grows – an “orange peel“ effect occurs.

But in the second half of the 20th century everybody forgot it – both women and men. You know what happened next: cellulite became the reason for a complete industry of fighting off its appearance. Anticellulite diets, creams and massages – all of these are nothing but an additional cost of hot air, which is shuttered by sounds coming from the speakers of your TVs, while it translates ads of anticellulite treatments. But even more these ads spread the idea of cellulite.

Spreaders of ideas

We live in the age of spreading ideas. People who are able to spread their ideas win. Classic media channels (TV, radio, mass media) once made an incredible thing – they simplified the life of those who spread ideas. But the more informational noise we get, the less significant a role classic meda plays. And we still see no reasons for this curve to climb upwards.

In our time, the internet has become the main channel for spreading ideas. And, perhaps, the ease of spreading ideas is the main feature of the internet. Since the internet became a factor in our universal culture, ideas have started appearing very quickly. They die even faster. The speed of new ideas appearing is impressive. It can be said that an idea, as – sorry for tautology – an idea, has been devalued.

Yesterday “we” danced the Harlem Shake, tomorrow “we” will discuss Cannes Lions, and today I see people in my Facebook feed discussing whom to send to Eurovision. I didn’t want it, but the spreaders of ideas did a good job. Generally, there is only one thing I understood from it – there is no more “us”. There are people who are my friends on social networks for some reasons, and even if I want to learn about the Monty Hall problem or football genius Messi, I’m involved in the funnel of discussions around Eurovision (damn it, I know nothing about it!) – these are ideas that are interesting to my spreaders.

Your spreaders are probably interested in other ideas. The only plus from this carousel of ideas is that an informational background changes fast. And large-scale ideas look more important on this background. Such ideas live longer. Such ideas tend to return. Such ideas are written about in books. By the way, the above mentioned idea of cellulite is one of them. Humankind had been living without cellulite for almost 2 million years (starting from Homo erectus). It seems that the rest of our days we’ll live fighting this terrible disease.

Specialists from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute decided to find out how ideas are spread. Using statistical analysis, scientists discovered something very interesting: an idea must catch only 10% of an audience, and then it will become self-replicating at enormous speed. It’s harder to spread an idea for 10% than to spread it next. Moreover, the following spreading is almost inevitable. That’s why after reaching 10% a minority, being convinced in its views, gets an approval of the whole society.

How do ideas spread?

The problem is that achieving this mark of 10% of loyal followers is almost unreachable in big societies – populations of entire countries and continents. Any society is a closed ecosystem which is the guardian of currently existing, already cultivated ideas. Any new idea is a virus for a society, a virus that can break the status-quo and must be destroyed.

To give birth to and spread ideas is very hard, almost impossible. In order to spread your idea, you must overcome your fear of being honest, which means of being vulnerable.

If you want to spread an idea, you need to go full-scale. Even if you are talking about a very specific topic, you must use global generalisations.

You can’t spread your idea if your final target is a significant, yet small group of people. An idea-virus must have the potential of engaging more and more “followers”. That’s why you have to be brave enough to fight distrust.

The thing is that people feel uncomfortable from the very beginning when their opinions is contrary to that of the majority. However, you must keep in mind that it’s possible to fight this initial rejection as well. When a person faces a new idea for the first time, he can deny it as long as he wants, but the “seed” of this idea is already planted in his head. If an idea is global (it doesn’t matter if it plays on the intellectual or emotional “strings” of a person or not), then a person-acceptor starts thinking it over or even discussing it with others. And if there is a man in his surroundings who already followed this idea, then it gets easier for the acceptor to welcome a new or unclear idea. This way acceptors of ideas start propagandising things which they were not sure about not so long ago.

Ideas-viruses became possible in business with the developmental help of mass media channels. Every transnational brand has such an idea-virus in the background. An idea-virus is behind Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Apple and so on. But not everyone manages to pass this desert of first 10% of followers.

In 1964 when a student and sportsman-runner Phil Knight invested his last $500 in a shoe manufacturing company, the chances of spreading his idea were almost zero. What makes it possible for his company to sell sneakers for an average of $70-$80 today? The thing that makes it possible is an army of followers who believe that Nike is the best brand of sports shoes, those offering the best quality – and it doesn’t matter where these sneakers were made. I’m even not afraid to say that their belief is almost religious in nature. But Nike spent a long time - 20 years - to achieve it’s first 10% following. Perhaps, the company overcame this barrier in 1984 – after signing a contract with Michael Jordan and making the legendary Nike Air Jordan.

Why people become followers?

Henry Walchowski, one of the greatest modern marketers, identified 20 reasons why people share this or that idea. Let’s list them in order. A person is ready to share your idea…

  1. …because he feels generous and magnanimous;
  2. …because he feels smarter (the teacher syndrome);
  3. …because he cares about the final result, and he really wants you, the creator of an idea, to succeed;
  4. …because he has no other choice but to use your product (it just doesn’t have any alternatives yet);
  5. …because it’s financially profitable for him (this is what all network marketing is about);
  6. …because your idea is funny, and laughing alone is not cool;
  7. …because he feels lonely, and sharing the idea solves this problem (even if not for long);
  8. …because he is mad about your idea, and he wants to involve more people to empathise his anger (or even to stop your idea);
  9. …because he and his friends will profit by sharing your ideas (group buying systems use this scheme);
  10. …because he was asked to do so, and he can’t say “no”;
  11. …because he can use this idea to bring people together and become an important person in a new society;
  12. …because he is driven by egotism – your service will work better for him, if his friends use it either (like social networks and email);
  13. …because sharing your idea will make him a little bit happier (why? who knows!);
  14. …because your idea is about something he can’t tell other people directly (“alcoholics anonymous”);
  15. …because he cares about someone who will be happier after he shares an idea (an idea of altruism);
  16. …because it’s funny when his buddy giggles with him at something they are not told at school (sex, funny and stupid pictures, cool videos);
  17. …because people around him should know about it to avoid danger (“attention! wanted a murderer who robs older people!”);
  18. …because people around him should know about it to maintain their inner calmness;
  19. …because it’s his job (oh! it’s about you, social media marketers!);
  20. …because he is absolutely in love with your idea, and the only thing he can do for you is to share it with other people.

Well, these are all the reasons. But the main conclusion is that our world revolves around a person. His favourite person is himself. Love him, and he’ll pay you back with the same. What’s next? Well, I hope that you are not the inventor of another treatment for cellulite. Otherwise, you will have to pray that a cure for cellulite will never be invented. It will be the end of an industry. It’s better to find a simple and clear idea. For example, an idea that a car is not something luxury, it’s just a transport. The main feature of ideas-viruses is that they are very simple and seem obvious. But only when an idea has already spread and gathered followers. By the way, I’m writing this copy on MacBook by Apple – a company which had an idea-virus for turning a PC from a specialised piece of iron from the university into a working tool. Can you imagine something more stupid that this? :)

P.S. Gotcha! Henry Walchowski doesn’t exist, I came up with this fictional character while I was writing this article. All of the above listed motives for spreading ideas belong to the other great modern marketer – Ivonne Feuerbach.

P.P.S. Gotcha again? Ivonne Feuerbach doesn’t exist as well. In real life, all of the points belong to Seth Godin. I hope you don’t believe me, so go and buy some of his books. Read him and you won’t regret. He really deserves it.

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Автор: Den Savelyev
The CEO of Texterra. He has been engaged in online marketing since 2003. Search engine marketer and growth hacker. The main hobby – online marketing. The main interest besides – online marketing. Religion – online marketing.
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