Unleash Your Ideavirus

Here's a big idea: Ideas are driving the economy. Here's a bigger idea: Ideas that spread fastest win.

You're at your business-school reunion. Everyone's bragging about how successful they already are — and trading lies about what they're doing to become even more successful. Frank the Jock talks about the dotcom he's just started. Suzie the Wallstreeter says that she has already made her money and is now turning her energy toward rebuilding Eastern Europe. And then the group looks at you.

"Well," you say, "I think the future — the really big money — is in owning a farm. A really small one, no more than 100 acres. Of course, I'll invest in a tractor. I expect that in just a few years my husband and I can cash out and buy ourselves a nice little brownstone in the city."

Ludicrous, no? Owning a farm may bring tremendous lifestyle benefits, but it hasn't been a ticket to wealth for more than 200 years.

So let's rewind the tape. Once again, your B-school buddies turn to you expectantly, and this time you announce, "I've just taken out a loan to buy my own hot-stamping press! In no time at all, I'll be turning out steel widgets. Before you know it, the United Auto Workers will want to organize my dedicated team of workers — and after that, Look out, auto-parts industry, here I come!"

Uh, no, wrong again. Most of us can agree that the big money went out of factory ownership at least 30 years ago. So, one more time, hit rewind. One more time, your bragging buddies turn to you, and this time you say, "I'm about to unleash my ideavirus!"

Soybeans, Wal-Mart, and Ideaviruses

The first 100 years of our country's history were about who could build the biggest, most efficient farms. The second 100 years were about the race to build efficient factories. Welcome to the third century: This one's about ideas.

At the moment, nobody knows how to build a farm for ideas, much less a factory for ideas. This much we do know: Ideas are driving the economy, ideas are making people rich, and, most importantly, ideas are changing the world. So even though we're clueless about how best to organize the production of ideas, one thing is clear: If you can get people to accept, embrace, adore, and cherish your ideas, you win! You win financially, you gain power, and you change the world.

What does it take to win? What do you need to do to change the conversation in business, and, if you're lucky, to change the world? If you're a farmer, you want nothing more than a high price for your soybeans. If you're a manufacturer of consumer goods, you dream about a display at the cash register at Wal-Mart. And if you're an idea merchant? You want to unleash an ideavirus.

An idea that just sits there is worthless. But an idea that moves, grows, and infects everyone it touches ... that's an ideavirus.

Exactly how does an ideavirus manifest itself? Where does it live? What does it look like? It starts with an idea manifesto, a powerful, logical "essay" that assembles a bunch of existing ideas and transforms them into a new, larger idea that's unified and compelling. Sometimes a manifesto is a written essay. Just as often it's an image, a song, a cool product, or a slick process. The medium doesn't matter; the message does. As long as you can use your manifesto to change the way that people think, talk, and act, you create value.

WARNING: Not only is this an article about ideas and ideaviruses, it is also a manifesto striving to become an ideavirus! If this manifesto changes your mind about marketing and ideas, maybe you'll share it with a friend. Or with two. Or with your entire company. If that happens, this essay will become an ideavirus.

In the new economy, consumers have built up antibodies that resist traditional marketing. That's why we need to stop marketing at people, and start creating an environment where consumers can market to one another.

So, is an ideavirus a form of marketing? Absolutely! But today, what else is there? You don't win with better shipping, or better manufacturing, or better accounts payable. You win with better marketing, because marketing is about spreading ideas — and ideas are now the very basis of competition.

The future belongs to the people who unleash ideaviruses.

Get the Picture?

Think of an ideavirus as a big idea that runs amok across a target population. It's the fashionable idea of the moment that propagates through a section of the population, teaching and changing everyone it touches. Heard of Hotmail? Ever used it? If so, it's not because Hotmail ran a lot of TV ads (it didn't). It's because the ideavirus got to you. Someone you know infected you with it. How did you discover the Polaroid I-Zone Pocket Camera? Did you come across it in a marketing campaign? Or did you find it when you saw a group of teenage girls at the mall, taking pictures of one another for their scrapbooks? Another ideavirus on the move.

Sometimes it seems as if everyone you know is watching the same TV show, reading the same book, or talking about the same movie, Web site, or TV commercial. How does this happen? It usually happens because an idea spreads on its own, not because a company behind a product spends a ton of money advertising it. How an idea spreads, and how to make it spread faster — that's the idea behind an ideavirus.

Ideaviruses aren't new. Word of mouth is as old as the oldest profession, but now it's different. Ideaviruses are more important, easier to launch, and more potent than ever before. Ideaviruses are critical because they start fast and spread fast — and speed wins: Brands and products don't have the time to develop the old way. Ideaviruses give us increasing returns: Word of mouth dies out, but ideaviruses keep growing and spreading. And finally, ideaviruses are the currency of the future, because we relish the new. An ideavirus is always about the new.

How Fast Is a Good Idea?

I wore Converse sneakers growing up. So did you. But the shareholders of Converse never profited from the idea of the shoe — they profited from the manufacture of a decent sneaker. If two pairs of sneakers were for sale, you bought the cheaper one.

It took Converse generations to build a brand and years to amortize its factories. The price of sneakers was based on how much they cost to make, and they were sold one pair at a time by earnest shoe salespeople who cared about things like how well the shoes fit.

Converse could take its time. The company was in it for the long haul. But now the long haul is long gone. Twenty years later, it's the idea of Air Jordan sneakers — not the sneakers themselves — that permits Nike to sell them for more than $100 a pair. It's the sizzle, not the fit. The idea earns Nike outsized profits — and because of that, the company doesn't even bother to own factories. But in the idea business, Nike does know that even the best idea has a short half-life, so it needs to find the next one in a hurry.

It took about 20 years for radio to have 10 million users. By then, an industry had grown that could profit from the mass audience. It took about 10 years for TV to do the same thing. It took only 28 months for Netscape to get to 10 million users — and Hotmail did it in 7 months. By aggregating a mass audience and by not having to share it with an entire industry, Internet heavyweights such as Hotmail and Netscape are able to realize huge profits, seemingly overnight. And they do it by spreading ideaviruses.

Ideas can now be carried in the ether — and because ether is fast and cheap, ideas can move faster and cheaper. Whether it's the image of the new VW Beetle (how long did it take for the idea of that car to pop up in your brain?) or the words of an online-only novella by Stephen King (400,000 people downloaded Riding the Bullet during the first week that it was available), the time that it takes for an idea to circulate is approaching zero.

Why does it matter that ideas can instantly cross international boundaries and change discussions about crime and justice, economics, education, or politics — or even get us to buy something? Because the currency of our future is ideas, and the ideavirus is the way that those ideas propagate. And you don't have to wait for it to emerge organically or to hope that it happens accidentally. You can plan for it, optimize it, and make it happen.

Sure, some ideaviruses are organic and accidental. They happen and spread without overt action or intent on the part of the person who creates them: Contrary to what you may think, the Macarena was not an organized, sinister plot; it just happened. But many other products, services, hit movies, or catchphrases are the intentional acts of smart entrepreneurs and politicians who know that launching and nurturing an ideavirus can help them accomplish their goals.

We Interrupt This Article

In the old days, interruption marketing sold products. We ran ads, interrupting people with unanticipated, impersonal, irrelevant messages, and hoped that they'd buy something. Sometimes, it even worked.

But even when interruption marketing didn't work, it did have one advantage: The marketer was in complete and total control. Of course, the disadvantages were that it was very difficult, very expensive, and very ineffective. But people persist: Every time a catalog clothier — Eddie Bauer, Lands' End, you name it — wants to sign up a new customer, it needs to buy a few hundred stamps, send out some carefully designed catalogs, and hope that one person will send it some money.

It doesn't matter what form interruption marketing takes; it always works — or doesn't work — the same way. The goal of the marketer is to spend money buying ads that interrupt people who don't want to be bothered. The goal of the consumer is to avoid hearing from the advertiser whenever possible. A beautifully executed commercial aired during the Super Bowl is an extraordinarily risky bet. Building a flashy and snazzy Web site is almost certain to lead to failure. Whenever advertisers build their business around the strategy of talking directly to the customer, they become slaves to the math of interruption marketing.

What marketers are now on the lookout for — and we're all marketers now — is something that taps into the invisible currents that run between and among consumers. Instead of talking to — or at — consumers, we have to help consumers talk to one another.

In creating an ideavirus, we aren't buying space — we're producing an environment, one where an idea can replicate and spread. It's the virus that does the work, not the marketer.

Ideavirus Tip #1: Concentrate!

Fortunately, there are already proven techniques that you can use to identify, launch, and profit from ideas that can be turned into viruses. There's a right way and a wrong way to create them, and, more importantly, the care and feeding of your ideavirus can dramatically affect its ability to spread.

One of the key elements in launching an ideavirus: Concentrate the message. If just 1% of a group is excited about your idea, it's not enough. It's still not enough if that percentage hits 15%. You only win when you dominate and amaze the group that you have targeted. That's why focusing obsessively on a geographic, demographic, or psychographic group is a common practice among successful idea merchants.

Why are new Net companies so obsessed with generating Web traffic and attracting visitors? Why does a company like GeoCities get sold for more than $2 billion, when it has close to zero revenue and features software that, though interesting, is by no means unique? Because infecting large populations with an ideavirus is the first step to building a profitable online business.

Here are the six key steps for Internet companies looking to build an online virus:

  1. Create an online experience that offers your users something completely new, something they can't get offline. Or create an online experience that duplicates an offline experience, but does it so much faster, cheaper, and better that switching is worth the hassle.
  2. Have the idea behind your online experience go viral, bringing you a large chunk of the group that you're targeting without your having to spend a fortune advertising your new service.
  3. Fill the vacuum in the marketplace with your version of the idea so completely that competitors will first have to unteach your virus before they can unleash one of their own.
  4. Achieve "lock-in" by making it more and more costly to switch from your service to someone else's.
  5. Get permission from users to maintain an ongoing dialogue with them so that you can build a relationship that gives them a beneficial experience and gives you a profit stream.
  6. Continue creating noteworthy online experiences to spread new viruses. Always begin by infecting your core audience of sneezers.

We Live in a Winner-Take-Almost-All World

Quick! Name an oil painting that hangs in an art museum somewhere in the world.

Did you say, "The Mona Lisa"?

As I walk through the Louvre, arguably one of the ten most-packed-with-high-quality-paintings museums on the planet, I pass through one empty room after another. Then I come to an alcove that is jammed with people. Why are all of these people crawling on top of each other in order to catch a fleeting glimpse of this one painting — a painting that is, by the way, roped off and poorly displayed behind many inches of bulletproof glass? Why is Mona the most famous painting in the world?

Because something had to be the most famous painting in the world — and it might as well be this one.

Busy people don't have time to look at every painting. They only have room in their overcrowded brains for a few paintings. And when you come right down to it, most people would like to see only the "celebrity" paintings. Just as there can be only one "My favorite famous actress" (Julia Roberts) and only one "This site equals the Internet" (Yahoo!), there's room for only one "Most famous painting in the world" — and the safe choice is the Mona Lisa.

A similar effect is described by Zipf's Law. George Zipf, who was a philologist and a Harvard University professor, discovered that the most popular word in the English language ("the") is used 10 times more than the 10th most popular word, 100 times more than the 100th most popular word, and 1,000 times more than the 1,000th most popular word.

To a greater or lesser degree, this effect applies to market share for automobiles, candy bars, soft drinks, software, and to the frequency of hits on Web pages. In other words, in almost every field of endeavor, being number 1 isn't just a little bit better than being number 2 or number 10 — it's a whole lot better. Rewards are distributed unevenly, especially in our networked world. On the Internet, the magnification gets even greater, the stakes even higher. The combined market capitalization of Amazon.com, eBay, and priceline.com is far greater than the total market capitalization of every other e-commerce stock combined. So when you win, even by a little, you win a lot.

An ideavirus helps your idea, your business, and your product win — regardless of how large or small your operation happens to be. Eric Raymond was a little-known programmer when he wrote an essay called "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" in 1997. It was a manifesto, an essay on its way to becoming an ideavirus. In it, Raymond argued the case for the open-source approach to coding — creating stuff like Linux. But instead of having a magazine or a book publisher bring it to market, he posted the essay online in text, postscript, and audio form. And he gave it away for free.

Within months, tens of thousands of people had read it. Months after that, Raymond published the essay with some of his other free essays in The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary (O'Reilly & Associates, 1999) — which became an "instant" best-seller. Of course, it wasn't instant at all. He had laid the foundation by building an ideavirus.

What has creating an ideavirus done to Raymond's value? Take a look at his financial situation: The virus led him to be in demand as a programmer, as a consultant, and even as a public speaker. And the spread of the open-source movement? In an online column, Raymond offered a mea culpa about what it felt like to become insanely rich when VA Linux Systems Inc. (on whose board of directors he has served since 1998) went public in December 1999.

The Idea Is Father to the Factory

Here are some astonishing facts you should think about long and hard on your way to work tomorrow: Twenty years ago, the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500 either dug something out of the ground or turned a natural resource (such as steel or oil) into something you could hold. Today, fewer than half of the companies on the list do that. The rest of them make unseemly profits by trafficking in ideas.

Last year, about 30,000 new musical CDs were released in the United States, including one from the Pope. (His Abb? Pater, which I like a lot, features a mix of tunes, including a little rap, a little techno, and a lot of world beats.)

Yahoo!'s market capitalization is 99% due to brand, sizzle, user loyalty, and other "soft" ideas. Only 1% of the company's value comes from selling stuff that customers can't get anywhere else.

Nathan Mhyrvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft, says that a great employee is worth 1,000 times more than an average one. Why? Because of the quality of her ideas.

Here's the point: Ideas aren't a sideshow that makes our factory a little more valuable. Our factory is a sideshow that makes our ideas a little more valuable.

Word of Mouse Beats Word of Mouth

Think back. Really far. All the way to 1990.

How many people did you have regular telephone contact with? Maybe 10, 20, or 30 in your personal life, and maybe 100 at work?

Now, take a look at your email inbox and your instant-messaging buddy list. How many people do you hear from every week?

Today, we have dramatically more friends and more friends of friends, and we can connect with them faster and more frequently than ever before. And now we've got second- or third- or fourth-order connections. There's an email in my box from someone who is married to someone I went to summer camp with 20 years ago who got my email address from a friend of a friend.

It's hard for me to imagine this person contacting me if he had to walk across the village and bang on the door of my hut or if he had to pick up a phone and call me. But the moment any of us connects to the Internet, we all connect to each other. And those connections make ideas travel. Fast.

There are two differences between word of mouth and an ideavirus: First, word of mouth is more analog and tends to spread more slowly. If you like a book, you might tell a friend or two. But your friends are unlikely to tell their friends until they've read it for themselves. Meanwhile, the book languishes at the bottom of the New York Times best-seller list.

Second, word of mouth dies off. Because the number of people involved is smaller, it doesn't take many people who don't participate for each generation to be smaller than the one before it. Think of the last time that fans in the bleachers at a baseball game started the wave. It went great — until it reached the rich folks behind home plate. It doesn't take much to kill off word-of-mouth marketing.

Compare that to "word-of-mouse" marketing. With an ideavirus, you can tell 100 friends, or even 1,000 friends — and because the numbers are larger and the message spreads more quickly, the virus grows instead of shrinking.

Read Unleash Your Ideavirus - Part Two

[Image: Flickr user Andrés Nieto Porras]

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4 Comments

  • Rachel Bowman

    Seth's comments about resisting traditional marketing and ideas is so true. There's a book Seth recently wrote a review for called 'EXPLOITING CHAOS' by Jeremy Gutsche that I think comments on some similar issues. Worth taking a look at, I think.

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