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March 8, 2010

Viral Marketing 101: The Difference Between Viral Memes & Viral Platforms

There are two types of viral. Viral memes and viral platforms.

Viral memes are things like subservient chicken, and email chains about rat feces in your coke can. They spread quickly because they hit a nerve in popular culture. They're shooting stars. They spread fast and then they disappear. This is natural. After all, when's the last time you watched "David at the Dentist", or any of the other viral hits of the past year?

Too often Interactive marketers try to create the next big viral meme. They want to make the next "elf yourself" or the next "subservient chicken." But, time and time again, they fail. They fail because memes are unpredictable. They require an adoption by the greater culture that is completely random. This doesn't mean brands shouldn't create fun and entertaining content. They should, but they shouldn't create it because they want it to go viral. They should create it because it has value. Because it makes people smile, it communicates a product benefit or because it's strikes a chord with their target audience.

The opposite of the viral meme is the Viral Platform. Viral platforms are unique because they become more useful as more people join. Think flickr, facebook, paypal, or even farmville (a viral game platform built on top of an already existing viral platform). Viral platforms exhibit the same rapid growth rate as viral memes, but they have staying power. Since their utility increases as more people join, their growth leads to stickiness. These positive network effects create a feedback loop that leads to rapid growth, rapid adoption and long term utility. And amazingly, their growth rates are almost completely predictable. Once you know the viral coefficient, you can model their growth up until they reach the saturation point.

Unfortunately, most marketers don't understand the difference between these two approaches. If you want to create a successful viral campaign/business, the first step is deciding which of these two approaches you want to take. Both approaches can work, but you need to be realistic in your expectations. Meme's are great, but you have to throw a lot of stuff against the wall to try to get something to stick. There are no guarantees. Viral platforms are more predictable and long lasting because of their positive network effects, but it takes a lot more effort to create them. They have to provide utility, or fill a need. But, if you can create a successful viral platform, the efforts can be well worth the investment.

March 5, 2010

Is Game Design The Future of Marketing?

In recent years, between console wars and massive multiplayer online games (MMOs), the gaming industry has boomed. Consequently, the practice of game design has also attracted more attention. At the heart of game design is the art of interactive storytelling, and that art is also at the heart of several other practices. For marketers, there's much that can be learned from the study of game design theory, how it has been applied to other fields, and how it can be applied to ours.

In this excellent presentation at the DICE Summit this year, Jesse Schell examines the question of what happens when game design theory is applied to other fields of study. In an example of game design applied to schooling, Jesse presents fellow game designer and University of Indiana professor Lee Sheldon as a sort of case study:

School is a game right? You go, you get scored, you come out, there’s a leaderboard etc. He doesn't give out grades anymore; he gives out experience points, and you level up through the class. And so class attendance is up. Class participation is up. Homework is turned in often and better, because it's a better structure, a better system.

While I doubt many of our readers are professional game designers, or even teachers, many of you are marketers. So, how can we learn to implement these types of systems, these games, into our marketing strategies? What game design theory can we learn from before heedlessly introducing points, challenges, and contests into our tactics?

Early in their book Rules of Play (hat tip Big Spaceship), authors Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman describe  their three primary schemata for viewing the study of game design:

  • RULES contains formal game design schemata that focus on the essential logical and mathematical structures of a game.
  • PLAY contains experiential, social, and representational game design schemata that foreground the player’s participation with the game and with other players.
  • CULTURE contains contextual game design schemata that investigate the larger cultural contexts within which games are designed and played.

In many ways, these three overarching categories describe every marketing campaign. Each implementation lives within the context of logical limitations, social incentives and barriers, and the cultural identity and behaviors of those exposed to it.

There are clear cross-overs between marketing and game design, and behind each of these schemata are valuable lessons that will help marketers create better systems, systems that lend themselves to a better customer experience and influence customer behavior positively.

If you have any insights on game design theory, examples of great game design applied to marketing, or just want to leave some feedback, please leave a comment or send us a tweet.

February 23, 2010

Mastery vs Performance Goals: Why the Type of Goal You Set Matters

Everyone sets goals. But, what most people don't realize is that the type of goals you set can have a major impact on your long term performance.

The most basic type of goal is known as a performance goal. These are goals that are directly correlated to an outcome. You want to get an "A" on that spanish test, or hit your sales quota.

These goals can be great in the short term, but they also have some downsides. Performance goals by their nature are rather shallow. If you had to cheat, at least you still hit your goal. If you made a mistake in the sales process, well at least you still hit your quota.

Performance goals also tend to undermine long-term performance. If you hit your initial goal, you become less motivated to continue towards excellence (after all you hit your goal). And if you don't hit your initial goal, you become discouraged and de-motivated because your self-worth is based on external inputs.

On the other side of the goal-setting coin are what's know as mastery goals. A mastery goal is when you set out to become the best you can be at a single task. Instead of trying to get an "A" in spanish, you try to become fluent in spanish.

Behavioral Researchers have found that mastery goals are more effective because your satisfaction isn't related to external indicators. Therefore you're less apt to give up in difficult circumstances, and you persevere through setbacks.

Mastery goals are always just beyond reach. This makes motivation over the long term easier to maintain. They're like a line that's asymptote. The curve of the line gets closer to the goal, but you never quite reach it. There is always something to strive for.

People that reach the pinnacle of their skills rarely set performance goals. They're more interested in competing with themselves, than gaining external feedback and validation. This orientation allows them to compete at a higher level over a longer period of time.

With Mastery goals there's always something to strive for. Even if it's as simple as being better at something tomorrow, than you were today.

February 18, 2010

Why The Future Will Be Built Around Exclusivity, Inconvenience, and Paid Content

In relation to my recent post, When Being Difficult Has Its Benefits, and in response to this interview with MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey (hat tip Noah Brier), I'd like to make the case that the future success of communities and content producers depends on raising the barriers to entry, not lowering them as many businesses have tried to do.

The biggest difference between communities offline and online is that the physical barriers to community have been shattered; you don't have to get out of your house to meet up, chat, or share. Likewise, gone are the days of changing out a CD or record, and the days of DVDs, books, newspapers, and magazines have all been numbered. Communities and content (which have increasingly become intertwined) are now easier to partake in than ever.

Witnessing the internet's growth from these lowered barriers, many business have chosen to build around the same concept. They assume, incorrectly, that because the internet's strength lies in convenience that their business model must also seek to eliminate all hints of inconvenience. In the same way that McDonald's approaches hamburgers, they don't completely ignore quality, but they relegate it to the back burner.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it's bad timing. When the pendulum of industry swings in one direction, smart businesses anticipate the backlash and begin building in the opposite direction. Convenience online has been pioneered, but in its wake there's been left an opportunity to pursue quality -- an opportunity for content and communities formed around curation, insight, and analysis.

The benefits of low-barrier communities are overshadowed by a few large and prominent first movers like Facebook, and content frequently gets lost in the shuffle. By shuffle, I mean the 46 years worth of YouTube video watched on Facebook everyday, the sixty tweets sent out over Twitter every second, and the millions of blog posts that saturate the web.

In order for a community to thrive in the shadow of Facebook, the best option isn't to play Facebook's game (i.e. become a ubiquitous, convenient, social identity), but rather to build a high-quality, selective niche with targeted content. In short, the future success of content and community online hinges on sacrificing a little bit of convenience in order to enjoy richer, deeper experiences.

Typically, that convenience can be most effectively removed at the point of entry. (Once someone is a part of your community or takes the effort to create content, they rightfully expect to be catered to.) Raising the barriers to entry has several benefits.

By creating small obstacles, a community can effectively ward against spammers, passer-bys, and unsavory types. Moderation costs are reduced. Quality is increased, and respect for the community grows.

In an interview with journalist Suemedha Sood, Matt  Haughey, founder of the impressive community blog MetaFilter, says:

"[the signup fee] is mostly just putting a huge hurdle in front of having to deal with new users. ‘Cause it’s such a pain. The last ten years have shown that any time there’s press, like the New York Times writes something about us, 300 people sign up and then wreak havoc for a while, and then go away. [Without barriers to entry] it would just be a nightmare."

By increasing exclusivity, the perceived value of the community is also increased. It's long been known in commerce that a higher priced item is perceived as a higher quality item, simply because of its price. But whether you raise the price or create other barriers, increasing exclusivity creates value for people who choose to be members.

When you create exclusivity, you give people a reason to be proud of their membership; there's no pride in being part of a community that everyone is in. This pride is useful from a loyalty perspective -- people who are proud to be members of your community are more likely to pay for additional products -- but also from a social perspective: people are more likely to share content produced by a community that makes them proud.

Lastly, paywalls are a great source of revenue.

Like the food industry, there's plenty of room and reason for businesses to expand into more exclusive communities built around higher-quality, slower-produced content. While the tactical implementation of barriers to entry is very much up for debate; it seems inevitable that the future will see more communities and content producers succeed by raising barriers to entry. After all, the internet doesn't want to be free. It wants to get paid on Friday like everyone else.

February 11, 2010

Magical Realism: The Foundation for Effective Brand Promises

Successful marketing today doesn't sell features; it sells benefits. This product will save you time. This product will save you money. This product is important for your identity. But successfully selling benefits requires more than cut-and-dry statements. Selling benefits involves making a magical promise (and then fulfilling it).

A great example of a brand that makes magical promises is Coke; they regularly promise happiness. But ethereal concepts (e.g. happiness, liberty, or financial freedom) are only effective when placed in an appropriate context. That's where polar bears, Santa Claus, and long sleepwalking journeys come in.

In fiction this technique of mixing the fantastical with the everyday is called magical realism, and the author most well-known for employing it is one of my favorites. Again and again Gabriel Garcia Marquez takes what is real and tangible and sprinkles in some magic; he is never satisfied with surface level appearances. Marquez's stories push the reader to reexamine the routine in light of grander, more extreme contexts, driving home the emotional truths and themes of the story in a profound way that has made him famous. His friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza says to him:

The way you treat reality in your books... has been called magical realism. I have the feeling your European readers are usually aware of the magic of your stories but fail to see the reality behind it...This is surely because their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn't limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs.

Likewise, when brands venture to make fantastical, complex, deep promises, consumers don't always see the reality. When that happens, they may put up psychological barriers against the brand. Seth Stevenson at Slate gives a great example using a surreal Levi's advertisement:

I've been in movie theaters when this ad played during previews, and the audience seemed transfixed—left in stunned silence when the ad faded out. But a friend says he saw it in a theater where, at the end, someone yelled, to much deflating laughter, "They're pants!"

The magic was spoiled.

But the risk of spoiled magic is a necessity. Levi's may not be associated with America to everyone who wears them, but to someone, somewhere, the distinctly American context, although extreme, communicated a powerful message. The same goes for Coke's promise of happiness, the feeling of fraternity that goes with grabbing some beers, and the drama behind fighting germs in commercials aimed at mothers. Not everyone buys into the magic, but some people do, and that makes it worth the risk.

Without a magical brand promise, products are nothing more than a list of features: some sugar water, a fermented beverage, or a chemical combination that kills germs. It's only when a brand promises a reality that is, as Mendoza says, "more than the price of tomatoes and eggs" and takes steps to support that promise that it has a chance at selling more than me-too products.