We're All Nerds Now
Here's the first law of Nerdism: We're all hungry to understand what's new and to remain on the cutting edge.
Jed Clampett discovered that finding oil on his property was a sure road to riches. Today, that road is paved with awareness. If you know what's news — if you know what's the latest, hottest, highest-impact new idea — it's much easier to succeed. You can profit in the stock market, do better in politics, find breakthroughs in science, or lead the way in programming or in marketing.
In 1998, more than 3,800 business books were published in the United States alone. Every one of them got read by someone, and some got read by an awful lot of people. Why? Because as our world changes faster and faster and faster, knowing is just as important as having. And that makes us a population that is ready and eager for the next ideavirus.
While early adopters have always existed — the nerds who always want to know about the cool new thing in their field — today there are more nerds than ever before. If you're reading this, you're a nerd!
Because it's always changing, always launching, and always judging, the Internet has turned us all into nerds: AltaVista isn't cool anymore, Google is. The Palm is pass?; Handspring is hot. Suddenly, we're ready, willing, and able to be at the bleeding edge all the time — which makes the profit from creating and owning an ideavirus larger than it ever was before.
The marketplace now understands how profitable — in terms of time, money, and personal satisfaction — it is to go with a winner. People supported John McCain just because other people were excited about him. In a political environment that was becoming stale, apathetic, and boring, excitement caused by an ideavirus was enough to change the dialogue. If something is new, different, and exciting, we want to know about it, to be a part of it. The fashion is now to be in fashion, and ideas are the way that we keep up.
Ideavirus Tip #2: Don't Sneeze at This Idea!
At the core of any ideavirus are sneezers — the folks who tell 10, 20, or 100 people about some new thing, and whom people believe. There are two basic kinds of sneezers: promiscuous sneezers and powerful sneezers.
Promiscuous sneezers are folks like your dear Uncle Fred, the insurance salesman. You can always count on Fred to try to "sell" his favorite ideavirus to almost anyone, almost anytime. You know what Fred's up to when he starts to pitch whatever it is that he's onto now. And you know that he can be motivated by money or other inducements — which means that you start out discounting whatever he's about to tell you. Promiscuous sneezers are rarely held in high esteem as opinion leaders, but if they're promiscuous enough, they can be extremely effective.
Many of the Net businesses that are being organized around ideaviruses are targeting promiscuous sneezers (I call any business that does this [WEB_ADDRESS]). As the value of creating ideaviruses increases, we'll see more of this, and we'll also see more and more people becoming promiscuous sneezers — which means only that we're paying folks well enough to corrupt them into spreading ideas in exchange for cold, hard cash.
Compare that with the influence of powerful sneezers. Go back to the early 1980s. The hat business is near the end of a decades-long downward spiral to total irrelevance. Each year has brought worse news, with one manufacturer after another going out of business, and most towns left with one haberdasher — if they're lucky.
All of a sudden, in the midst of all of this dismal news, from out of nowhere, a hero bursts onto the scene: Harrison Ford. Carrying a bullwhip. Wearing a hat.
Like the Marlboro Man, Indiana Jones had an enormously positive impact on sales of Stetson hats. Why? Because Harrison Ford is cool, because he has the influence to set style, and because his appearance in a movie in which he wore a fedora coaxed millions of men who wanted to be like him into buying one for themselves.
The paradox of the powerful sneezer is that as much as she does to sell ideas, she can't be bought. Every time she accepts a bribe in exchange for spreading a virus, her power decreases. In fact, every time a powerful sneezer introduces a new idea, she takes a risk. If, for whatever reason, her followers reject the virus, she loses some measure of her ability to introduce future viruses. For this reason, most powerful sneezers are predictably hard to motivate to adopt a new ideavirus.
One hundred years ago, there weren't many opportunities for playwrights, actors, and captains of industry to sell out. Today, Whoopi Goldberg pitches Flooz.com, and William Shatner pitches priceline.com: The celebrity is shifting from the role of influential, powerful, can't-be-bought-I'm-a-style-statesman to promiscuous sneezer, up for sale.
The growth of the Net almost guarantees that we'll see more and more people become promiscuous sneezers. At the same time, the role of the powerful sneezer will become ever more important: The less attention that we have to spare, the more likely we are to listen to someone who's spreading a virus without gaining anything personally from doing so.
Five Principles That Are Really New!
Marketers have been pursuing word of mouth for years. There are five important principles that idea merchants with an ideavirus understand — principles that marketers pursuing old-fashioned word of mouth didn't use:
- Idea merchants understand that creating the virus is the single most important part of their job. So they'll spend all of their time and money creating a product and an environment that feed the virus.
- Idea merchants understand that as long as they can recognize and manipulate the key elements of idea propagation — the identification of sneezers, the persistence, the smoothness, the vector, and the velocity — they can dramatically improve a virus's chances of success.
- Idea merchants remind themselves on a regular basis that digital word of mouth amounts to a permanent, written record online, a legacy that will follow the product, for good or for ill, forever.
- Idea merchants realize that the primary goal of a product or service is not just to satisfy the needs of one user. The goal is to deliver so much wow, to be so cool, to be so neat, and to be so productive that the one user tells five friends. Products market themselves by creating and reinforcing ideaviruses.
- Idea merchants know that because an ideavirus follows a life cycle, they will have to decide when to shift from paying to spread it to charging users and profiting from it.
An Ideavirus Adores a Vacuum
It's very hard to keep two conflicting ideaviruses in your head at the same time. (Communism: benign or evil? Martha Stewart: pro or con? It's one or the other — you can't have both.)
Because of that, the best friend of an ideavirus is a vacuum. Back in 1987, when 60 Minutes featured a story about runaway acceleration of Audi cars, the ideavirus spread like wildfire. Why? Because most people had never driven an Audi. Most people had never interacted with Audi as a company. Most people didn't have best friends who loved their Audis. As a result, the virus rushed in, filled the vacuum, and refused to be dispersed.
Audi, of course, did exactly the wrong thing to fight the virus. The company issued a tight-lipped response and relied on engineering data to prove its case. Very correct, very German — and totally ineffective. It cost the company billions of dollars in lost sales.
Instead, Audi could have countered the virus by filling in the rest of the vacuum: Put an Audi 5000S in every major shopping mall in the United States. Let people sit in it. Invite everyone to take the "Audi Sudden-Acceleration Test" and see for themselves what the car feels like. By creating a forceful alternative to a television hatchet job, Audi could have unleashed its own countervirus.
The Proper Care and Feeding of Your Ideavirus
Once it begins to spread, your ideavirus follows a life cycle. If you ignore the life cycle, the ideavirus dies out. But if you pay close attention to the life cycle, you can nourish your ideavirus and help it live for a long time.
Tom Peters cowrote In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies (Harper & Row, 1982). Through some smart marketing moves (not to mention a great virus), the book became an epidemic, and turned into one of the world's best-selling business books.
Tom's career could have followed the arc of almost every other business writer — a big hit followed by a long decline into obscurity. But instead of ignoring the life cycle, he insists on riding it. Every few years Tom unleashes a new ideavirus. He writes mind-blowing articles (such as "The Brand Called You," August:September 1997) and follows them up with books and exhausting worldwide speaking tours. When he shows up in a town to give a speech, perhaps one-third of the people there are already dyed-in-the-wool, stark-raving Tom Peters fans. And the rest of the audience? They've been brought there by the fans, ready to be exposed to Tom's virus, prepared to be turned into fans themselves.
By leveraging the base that his first book brought him, Tom has built a career out of launching new ideaviruses.
Other companies and ideas have ridden their first wave and then disappeared. People no longer clamor to dance the Hustle or to get into Studio 54. (They couldn't even if they wanted to: It closed down.) They don't visit the once-hot JenniCAM Web site or pay a premium for front-row seats to Cats. Why not? Because instead of institutionalizing the process of improving, honing, and launching ideaviruses, the "owners" of these viruses milked them until they died.
Choose One: An OXO Good Grips Peeler or a Toyota Prius
Ideas are more than just essays and books. Whether it's a new product, a new piece of technology, or a new way of creating new products, an idea that wins ultimately does so because of intelligent seeding by its creators.
Remember what I told you about manifestos — that a manifesto is a carefully organized series of ideas that is designed to get someone to come around to your point of view? The most obvious way to make a complicated argument is with a book. But you can just as easily — and sometimes more effectively — send it through a song, as Bob Dylan did for Hurricane Carter, or with something as elegant as an OXO Good Grips vegetable peeler or as potentially important as a Toyota Prius.
When you first see the OXO, you instantly understand the idea behind it. You just know that it will work better than whatever peeler you're using now — and cut you less often. The design of the OXO is a manifesto that says, "There's a smart, comfortable way to do this annoying task." Is the OXO going to get viral? Not across the general population, of course. But among foodies and the hive of people who love kitchen stuff, it already has gone viral. Just take a look at the glowing reviews of this peeler on Amazon's kitchen site.
Now compare the OXO peeler with the Prius — Toyota's opportunity to save the world with an ideavirus. This is the car that is designed both to take a whack out of the greenhouse effect and to conserve our remaining fossil fuels. It's the only family car that has ever won an award from the Sierra Club.
Because its engine is powered by both gasoline and electricity, the Prius gets about 50 miles to the gallon, gives very good performance, and emits close to zero pollution. Everything about it says, This car is important!
Unfortunately, because Toyota is a factory-based company that uses ideas — rather than an idea company that owns factories — it has built the product completely backward. Let's start with the name. How can you tell someone about a car you're excited about if you don't know how to pronounce its name? Is it Pry-us, or is it Pree-us? I don't want to feel stupid, so I just won't say the name at all.
Second, is there a smooth way for me to spread the word? The Toyota Web site doesn't even show the Prius on its home page. When I search for it, I finally do get a very nice page. But is there a "Tell a friend" button? Is there information on how I can set up a test drive? Is there a place for me to give my email address so that I can give Toyota my permission to get information on when the car will be available in my neighborhood? No, on all three counts.
What about a community-activism component with teenagers going door-to-door with petitions, planning to lobby the local government to buy Prius police cars? Or letter-writing campaigns that spring up from grassroots environmental organizations around the country? Nope.
But the biggest mistake Toyota made was the way it designed the car. Unlike the VW Beetle and the Mazda Miata, the Prius is not a moving billboard for itself. In fact, it looks rather, well, ordinary.
You could have 1,000 of these cars drive right by you, and you wouldn't notice one of them. You wouldn't notice the styling, you wouldn't notice the superior gas mileage and the lack of emissions, and you certainly wouldn't aspire to own one just by looking at it.
Are the people at Toyota on a mission from God? Are they acting like zealots, aggressively pushing a car that will change the world for the better, the most powerful idea to come out of the car industry since Henry Ford perfected the assembly line? Just how committed are they to their own idea? What a lost opportunity!
An idea merchant in search of a virus would take a very different tack: Instead of trying to make it cheap and boring, she would realize that the first people to buy a car like this are people with money to risk on an unproven technology. And she'd recognize that the opinion leaders and nerds who are most susceptible to this idea are also the most likely to want to drive an exceptional car.
So she would redesign the thing to be stunning. Different. With unique colors, using special environmentally approved paint. Maybe include a permanent bumper sticker with an LCD readout that gives real-time information on the car's exact current gas mileage. The first 50,000 people who buy this car will be doing it to make a statement. And every person who does so will be making that statement to the 1,000 or 10,000 people who see them driving by each day. It's a virus waiting to happen.
And finally, an idea merchant wouldn't let just anyone buy the first models off the line. She'd select the very best sneezers, and do whatever it took to get these folks to drive the car. James Bond? Julia Roberts in her next film? The mayor of Carmel, California or the head of Greenpeace?
This is urgent! This is not about making another few million bucks from a Web site. It's about changing the world, infecting the population with a positive virus, and doing it before the vacuum fills up with junk, when it will be too noisy to communicate about something that really matters.
Ideavirus Tip #3: Answer These Three Questions!
There are three questions whose answers will determine how well your ideavirus will spread:
1. How many people know about it before the spreading starts?
You can launch big or you can launch small. In plenty of cases where you're trying to launch a hot new Web-based service, all you need are 100 people to seed it. But if you're entering a vacuum and you're finding that there's plenty of competition on the horizon, launching big — although much more expensive — can increase your chances of success.
How to launch big? With traditional interruption advertising. With sponsorships. With free samples. One of the dumbest things that marketers do is to put artificial barriers in the way of customer sampling and trial. How many new cars would dealerships sell if they decided to charge people $100 to take a test-drive? But charging for a test-drive is no dumber than charging to read a book, to see a movie, or to hear a speech. When you launch an ideavirus, the more people who can see it fast, the faster it spreads.
2. How smooth is your ideavirus?
In addition to being persistent and cool, an ideavirus needs to be smooth if it's going to spread quickly. If you make it easy for the virus to spread, it's more likely to spread. Take the approach used by Hotmail: Build a smooth transference tool right into the product.
Sometimes it's hard to achieve smoothness — but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try. Columbia Music Club has thrived with member-get-a-member promotions, in which they bribe members to tell their friends about the club (for example, you can get three free CDs if your friend joins the club). Fast Company puts a button next to every story it publishes on its Web site: "Click here to send this page to a friend." Very smooth. Tupperware built an entire company around the smooth transfer of product enthusiasm from one friend to another. When you focus obsessively on how to make an ideavirus as smooth as it can be, you have the chance to increase its velocity dramatically.
3. Have you mastered the Hare Krishna Dinner Party Tactic?
Sooner or later, you've got to turn momentary attention into an embrace of your idea — and then, hopefully, you convert the user into a sneezer. Permission marketing becomes a critical tool in working people through this transition — think of it as the Hare Krishna Dinner Party Tactic.
The Hare Krishnas have grown their sect by inviting people to eat a vegetarian dinner with them. Intrigued or just hungry, people give them momentary attention and then permission to talk with them about this new way of life. Sometimes, people leave having done nothing but eaten dinner. Sometimes, people listen to what's being said and decide to embrace the ideals behind the religion. And sometimes, people become converted and turn into sneezers, volunteering to go out and invite other people over for another dinner tomorrow night.
What the Hare Krishnas do not do is to start by walking up to a stranger and proselytizing about their religion. Instead, they use a gradual technique to sell their idea and effectively turn it into a virus.
On the Web, this sort of multistep process is too often overlooked by companies facing short-term financial pressure. (Combine this with the legendarily short attention span of entrepreneurs, and you can see why this happens.) When I visit some cool new Web site, I'm telling its creators that I'm interested in what they have to offer. What can they do to infect me with their virus? Three things:
Get permission to follow up with me, so that over time I can easily learn about why I should embrace this idea. It might have cost a site $100 in marketing expenditures to have gotten me to visit it for the first time, but if it does not get permission to follow up with me, that money is wasted.
Make as many supporting manifestos available as possible, in whatever forms necessary, to get me over the hump from skeptic to supporter. These can include endorsements, press reviews, even criticisms and commonly made objections. Think of the Hare Krishnas at dinner. The more they can expose you to during that hour, the better chance they have of sticking.
Make it easy for me to spread the ideavirus by providing a multitude of tell-a-friend tools, as well as overt rewards for becoming a sneezer.
Wear Jeans on Wednesday If You're Gay!
As ideaviruses become more important, old-line companies see more and more clearly that the services that they're used to providing are private in nature. Your friends and acquaintances probably have no idea what brand of PC you have, whether you have gas or oil heat, how often you see the chiropractor, or what your favorite kind of wine is.
Because of the private nature of these relationships, the only way to expand the market for them is for marketers to spend more money and interrupt more people with more junk ads. But if they can figure out how to make these relationships public, if they can figure out how to launch an ideavirus, the whole equation changes.
Here's an example: frequent-flier miles.
American Airlines has made a fortune using frequent-flier miles not only as an inducement to loyalty but also as a currency that they sell to other companies.
But none of your friends knows how many frequent-flier miles you've racked up. You almost never talk about them unless something exceptional happens that you want to brag about ... like when you cash in your miles to buy tickets for your whole family to fly to France.
If American wanted to move miles out of the closet and turn them into an ideavirus, all it would have to do is to make the following announcement at a convention jammed with business travelers:
"If you can find someone at this convention who has precisely the same number of miles as you do, we'll give you both a million miles." Suddenly every person you meet wants to talk to you about your mileage status.
Hakuhodo Inc., one of Japan's largest ad agencies, used a similar approach and turned it into a national craze. It seems that sending New Year's cards is a big deal in Japan — on par with sending Christmas cards in the West. Most people buy their cards at the post office — envelope and stamp included. When you send a card, it comes with a lottery ticket that gives you the chance to win a small prize, such as a radio or a bicycle.
Hakuhodo runs its promotion on the Net. And its cards, which go by email, are free to send. But the best part is that if the person you're writing to wins, you win the same prize. The more cards you send, the happier your friends are, and, of course, the happier you are.
Not only did this promotion go viral, it turned into an epidemic. In 1998, 25% of the people with Net access in Japan either sent or received one of Hakuhodo's cards.
Of course, going public doesn't always involve the promotion of a product. When I was in college, the gay-and-lesbian student center ran a campuswide activity that they called "Wear jeans on Wednesday if you're gay." Suddenly, something that had been a private topic was now the topic of discussion among everyone. If you weren't wearing jeans, was that because you were afraid that people would think that you were gay? Was there something wrong with being seen as gay, whether you were or not?
One simple act turned the issue of sexual orientation into an ideavirus and generated thousands of hours of intense discussions about how we all viewed the issue.
The Fashion Moment
Why do open-toe shoes come and go? Bell-bottoms? What about miniskirts? How is it that every year, without consulting with one another in advance, multiple clothing designers introduce similar lines?
Why do some Internet businesses — group scheduling, free email, health portals — seem to appear simultaneously, even though it took them months or years to launch?
Answer: It's the fashion moment.
The fashion moment occurs when a respected member of a hive — call this person a fashion editor — takes a chance and tries out something new. Chefs, journalists, R&D specialists, record-label executives, and successful venture capitalists — these are examples of the kinds of people who are great fashion editors.
Clive Davis, president of Arista Records, has been a stellar fashion editor in the music business for generations. Over the course of his career, he has launched dozens of breakthrough acts, from Miles Davis to Bruce Springsteen to Pink Floyd. The only thing that these artists had in common was that they were just right for their time. A month earlier or a month later and they might never have succeeded. But fashion editors aren't infallible, and if they're not careful, they fall into one of two traps:
Trap #1: They lose touch with the hive and fall in love with their own taste. Without the feedback loop that the hive provides, they lose their touch. Warren Buffett is a brilliant stock-market investor with an extraordinary ability to understand what other people are going to want to invest in. But when Internet mania started to hit the stock market, Buffett lost his ability to predict what the hive would do. Buffett left billions of dollars of profit on the table because he refused to believe that the Internet-stock ideavirus would spread throughout the hive of investors.
Trap #2: They stop thinking of themselves as fashion editors and start to believe that they are fashion makers. Rather than acting like people who have a sense of which virus will hit the hive next, they believe that they are respected enough by the hive to force it to accept what they believe should be the next virus.
Your business faces the challenge of finding or training a fashion editor. Launching products too early is just as bad as launching them too late: If you miss the timing, you fail to fill the vacuum with your virus. Miss the timing, and the profit belongs to someone who has better timing and better fashion sense than you have.
The Money Paradox: The Sooner You Ask for It, the Less You'll Make
The single biggest mistake that an idea merchant can make is to ask for money too soon. On one hand, you want to charge early and often, so that you can cash in on people who are just looking, and so that you can maximize your income before your idea fades. On the other hand, early money introduces a huge amount of friction into the system. Many idea merchants require people to pay the most when they know the least. Why don't book publishers release a book first in paperback, which is cheap and thus more likely to be bought by a curious reader, and then replace it with a hardcover once they know that everyone is clamoring for a copy? Today, if you want to taste a new book, you have to pay $25 for the privilege.
On the Internet, dozens of new businesses have discovered how important this issue is. For example, eFax.com, a service that lets you get faxes delivered to your email box, launched as a free service. Why? Because it's scary enough to be one of the first people to try something as flaky as eliminating your fax machine. How many people would be willing to pay money for the privilege?
So eFax has a plan: Get people hooked on a free system. Build an ideavirus. Then upgrade people to a paid system that offers all sorts of extras. Fill the vacuum. Achieve lock-in. Extract revenue.
In that order!
Will eFax be guaranteed an easy upgrade path? I have no idea. Some businesses — such as email — will be stuck at "free" forever, making the whole journey hard to justify.
The challenge, of course, is to figure out which businesses have a payoff at the end. And it's important to be patient enough to wait for the right moment, to introduce the friction of charging money at just the right time.
In very transparent markets like the Internet, the fear is that all ideaviruses will be so competitive that you'll never be able to extract money. That's why the race to fill the vacuum is so intense. If you can fill the vacuum aggressively and permanently, it is far easier to extract money.
Is That Your Final Answer?
When a sneezer is ready to spread your ideavirus, what should he say?
It sounds like a simple, silly question, but it gets at the core issue of making your virus smooth. If you give sneezers easy-to-follow, effective instructions, they're likely to follow them, because, after all, their goal is to spread the virus.
The producers of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire have Regis Philbin repeat the catchphrase "Is that your final answer?" almost to distraction. Though the question was created for legal reasons, it has become a smooth tool for sneezers who want to spread the virus. I must have heard the phrase 50 times, and read it in newspaper columns almost as many times, before I saw the show for the first time.
By giving loyal watchers a five-word catchphrase, the producers created a powerful shorthand for referencing the show. Hotmail has done the same thing with its free email service. The bottom of every Hotmail message contains simple instructions for getting the service. And because the instructions appear automatically, the sneezer doesn't have to do a thing to put them there.
It's important that you do not leave to chance the critical matter of the catchphrase or the instructions for spreading the virus. Why run the risk of having sneezers spread the wrong message? Why leave the possibility of mixed or conflicting messages? If you make the language fun and accessible, and the instructions easy and automatic, you increase the smoothness and speed of your ideavirus.
No, You Go First!
The problem with a new idea is that very few people want to go first. Who was the first person to swim in the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts after years of it being off-limits for health reasons? Who were the first parents to give their kid the measles vaccine? Which company chose to be the first to file its taxes electronically?
One of the key reasons to launch an ideavirus is that you can give people a risk-free, cost-free way to check out the safety of your idea before they commit. More importantly, you can create an aura around your idea — an aura of inevitability, of invincibility. When everyone is buzzing about a new technique, tactic, musical style, club, or food — whatever — it's easier to put fear aside and try it.
So. Who wants to go first? And who wants to be last?
Seth Godin (firstname.lastname@example.org), author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends and Friends Into Customers (Simon & Schuster, 1999), is an idea merchant. For more information, visit the Ideavirus Web site (http://www.ideavirus.com) to get Godin's latest work — for free!
Sidebar: Recipe for Your Own Ideavirus:
What does it take to create a successful ideavirus? Follow these seven simple steps:
Make sure that your idea is virusworthy. If it's not worth talking about, it won't get talked about.
Identify the hive. To get the full benefit of an ideavirus, you'll need to infect more than half of your hive.
Expose your idea. Expose it to the right people, and do whatever you need to do to get those people deep into the experience of your idea as quickly as possible.
Create your sound bite. You've got to decide what you want the sneezers to say to the population. If you don't decide, they'll decide for you — and say something less than optimal.
Give the sneezers the tools that they need to spread the virus. After you've got the sneezers, make it easy for them to spread your idea.
Have we chosen a hive that we're capable of dominating?
How smooth is the transfer of the ideavirus?
Have we built in multiple feedback loops so that we can alter the virus as it moves and grows?
Sidebar: My Ideavirus Is an Ideavirus
Here's my five-point plan to turn this manifesto into an ideavirus:
Describe something important, cool, neat, and useful, and do it in compelling, clear, and exciting language.
Launch the virus to the largest possible audience of sneezers that I can find. In this case, that means the readership of Fast Company //www.fastcompany.com/ideavirus.
Make it smooth and make it catchy. Post the entire manifesto at http://www.ideavirus.com . Include commentary from Jay Levinson, Tom Peters, Lester Wunderman, and others. Include the text of the entire book. Make it easy to send the book to a friend. Include my PowerPoint slides. Do it all for free.
Run ads to create an environment in which sneezers feel comfortable spreading the manifesto to others.
Maintain the virus as it grows by doing speaking engagements and by distributing the hard-copy version of the manifesto to appropriate sneezers.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.