The world according to algorithms

I wrote this post over three years ago! Gosh – kinda of more scary now. Yikes.

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My personal, trusted search agent, my husband, cut out an article for me about DemandMedia, an innovator in offering a service for web owners to pull algorithm driven, highly moentizable content – fast and cheap.

Then a few minutes later I read about Cheaptweet.com and how it uses an algorithm to mine Twitter feeds for deals on clothes, electronics and services.

I began to notice a pattern.

The next day I read about new search methods that were smarter because of, you guessed it, algorithmic technology.

Now with a thud, I realized, a bit to my horror, that algorithmic logic drives a big part of our lives. It drives our searches and, as a result, what we learn about. It drives which ads we see and crunches through a formula to present us with the most relevant, contextual based ad possible. It filters what offers we see or don’t see online.  And the ever iterative algorithmic engines can even choose our future mates.

I even think some algorithm predicted the end of the world to happen sometime in 2012 *sigh*.

It then blindingly dawned on me (better late than never) that my perception of the world was being shaped by algorithms – aggregation of data points. I was taken aback by the fact that my world perception was not formed as I thought by my experiences with real people – but by mechanical machines spitting out numerical answers to questions I had not yet asked.

I realize I see the world through number colored lens. I am not sure I like the effect.

This shouldn’t be bothering me – but it does.

Judy Shapiro

http://twitter.com/judyshapiro

The Surprised Entrepreneur turns Rebel Entrepreneur

What makes a rebel.

What makes a rebel.

“Judy,” a sweet tech project manager said to me recently after I discussed some of the gaps in the social marketing ecosystem “You are on a crusade.”

I didn’t see that one coming so it stopped me dead in my tracks. What crusade was that I wondered? I probed but she dodged answering me. The word crusade is laden with meaning so it stuck with me – what had I said to give her that impression?

In hindsight it seems obvious but in the moment, I was oblivious to the shift in my thinking from simply being a Surprised Entrepreneur (as I posted here) to becoming a Rebel Entrepreneur.

My cause was simple – to put the human element back into the business of marketing that has been platform’d to a near digital death. I am driven to re-infuse marketing with the sense of wonder, joy and creativity that I had the good fortune to revel in during my earlier career days.

In those ancient days (one generation after Mad Men but before the Internet revolution had really hit) we could put hearts into our work because there were few tools or platforms or technologies to guide the work. It was pure creativity and smarts. It was hard to measure the effectiveness of the much of the work but you knew your work made a difference when the company did better – jobs were created and bonuses were happily doled out.

Over the years, technology improved how we deployed marketing but we continued to be driven by our nobler motivations to create great marketing that improved people’s lives. We knew we could make a difference.

But there’s been a shift in the industry over the past 3 years. Marketing, especially social marketing has become a tech-heavy exercise of manipulating retargeting platforms, or reward systems or algorithmically based big data platforms. Social marketing is reduced to a conversation about content syndication or sentiment analysis.

So it’s no surprise that over that period of time, inextricably, I have seen tech and platforms taking the joy and the nobility out of the system. I have become overwhelmed by the supremacy of marketing platforms over serving people and algorithms over inspiration.

My sense of alarm was quite publicly aired in the digital pages of Ad Age and Huffington Post. I ranted at Facebook when I felt defeated at using Facebook productively. I admitted frustration at the black-box techno-jargon wave that swept over us marketers drowning us in confusion. I’ve even had the chutzpah to question the funding strategies of VCs who are basing their investments on marketing principles that simply don’t apply anymore. But mostly I challenged the 20 something CEOs who created marketing platforms that are long on cool but short on practical application for real marketers.

In the process, I have been:

  • Flamed by Macboys and called a hack (look up “Judy Shapiro” and “mac security”)
  • Accused of being techno-phobic and capable of only kitchen related work, ideally pregnant at the same time thus preventing me from ever writing offending articles ever again
  • Tarred and feathered as an “old line” marketer unable to keep up with the iteration savvy tech guys
  • Harangued for questioning if the “Content as king” model was sustainable
  • And very nearly digitally lynched when I first suggested in 2010 that perhaps Facebook had jumped the shark.

And so against all odds – here I am, founder and CEO of a social tech company, readying the BETA launch of our new network called Eden for Q1.

Against all odds, this little venture that started a year ago will be introducing a different type of social marketing framework that is a based on an “opt-in” paradigm. We are going up against the big “push based” social marketing platforms and networks. It is an uphill but noble fight. In our vision, Eden is a place where users control the action – how they see content or which brands they interact with. It is a reversal of the; “It is our platform so you have to play by our ever-changing rules” social network that dominates social marketing today.

Against all odds, we managed to secure funding including from an early stage VC for which we are eternally grateful. We’ve created relationships with agencies ready to sell Eden to their clients and we’ve sealed meaningful partnerships that help us gain access to the highest levels within publishing and brands.

Against all odds, as one woman in her 50’s, I am privileged to be joined by a community of seasoned marketers to help in this crusade. Our collective goal is to right the marketing ship listing dangerously to one side from the weight of platforms and big data. I can’t express my gratitude to this brave league of fellow crusaders other than to give them full credit for their invaluable role in our noble adventure. I give them a place of honor in our company’s history:

  • Peter Hubbell, CEO of BoomAgers and former Saatchi Board member. www.boomagers.com
  • Griffin Stenger, a founding partner of Concept Farm, a leading social marketing agency [Crain’s]. www.conceptfarm.com
  • Robyn Streisand, Founder and CEO of The Mixx Group – a branding agency and an early investor in engageSimply. www.themixxnyc.com.
  • David Hoffman whose career spans four decades as a film producer and corporate strategic communicator. Wikipedia’s simply calls David: “One of America’s veteran documentary filmmakers.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hoffman;
  • John Bowman, was Exec VP Strategy at Saatchi working on their premier brands and is now authoring a book about his great Grandfather, Archibald Stark Van Orden http://theassassinsassassin.com/about/
  • George Collins, a long time database expert and CEO of Research & Response – a database management consultancy. http://www.rresp.com/
  • Mark Bonchek, Founder of Orbit + Co whose strategic consultancy is “creating a new direction in business by shifting the relationship of individuals and institutions from PUSH to PULL.” http://www.thinkorbit.com/

Against the odds, I have been able to attract a seasoned management team of  marketing practitioners who had to “build it” after the consultants talked about loving it but conveniently left when the real work began. They were the ones who built those first generation eCommerce sites and created the principles that good UE designers use today. Our journalists understand SEO and our artists are offering their images for free all in an effort to be a part in the creation of an alternate social marketing reality – a fresh start called Eden.

So against all odds, I find I have become a Rebel Entrepreneur – so strange especially given my training, temperament and age. The potential high rewards of being a rebel all too often comes at a high price and we’ve seen our share of deals gone bad, betrayal by trusted colleagues and funding plans gone awry (Sandy was devastating to the startup community).

And yet, despite the odds, we are close to the launch of our network.

So I invite you all over to Bit Rebel to experience this journey with us as we sprint to Eden’s launch in Q1. Celebrate our highs and feel the unnatural lows that are endemic to startups. Share our anxiety as our burn rate increases but our funding outlook seems further out (we are doing a second round of seed funding now). Take a peek behind the startup curtain, see what’s really going on and help shape what happens. The success of Eden will be a triumph of us marketing practitioners like web designers, SEO geeks and developers over algorithmic feats of IP muscle.

Our mission is noble and our cause true.  Come join us.

I guess like any good crusade, we need a flag and a manifesto. Stay tuned – I am just learning how to be a rebel. Kinda of exhilarating actually. But

Judy Shapiro

P.S. My rebellion gets its own website: http://judyshapiro.wix.com/rebel-entreprenuer. Viva Le Rebellion.    

The real effect of The Facebook Effect.

The last few days were eventful for Facebook and its ever so precocious young founder.

First, Facebook went public to much fanfare. Here is how the Mercury News summed it all up:

“After opening at a price of $42.05, shares of Facebook’s wildly anticipated initial public offering closed a mere 23 cents above its pre-set price of $38. The failure of Facebook’s shares to rise well past $38 was seen as a disappointment by some observers. Nonetheless, it remained the most successful technology IPO in history and set a record for the number of shares sold — more than 567 million — in a company’s stock market debut.”

Then before we could absorb that news we learn, in stark contrast to the hullabaloo of the IPO, our young CEO-HERO gets married before a humble gathering of 100 people ostensibly there to celebrate the bride’s graduation.

With two such momentous events surrounding our CEO-HERO, we saw endless stories about Mark Zuckerberg as the driving force of Facebook. Even more stories were written about whether Facebook was a good investment for individuals.

But what interested me more was really understanding what was Facebook’s secret sauce that made it worth a $100 B (“B” stands for breathless also – ya’ know). Why did this stock seem to defy all rational evaluation?

No one seemed to really answer that question well.

I knew early on (by about 2010) that social marketing and Facebook were going to be powerful when I observed: “social media was not just a tactic to be tacked onto the backside of a traditional campaign”. Yet everyone, me included, was surprised at the speed of Facebook adoption. It was breathtaking.

Many ascribed that stellar growth to the brilliance of Mark. Yet, it just did not feel right to me to assign Facebook’s unprecedented growth to his vision or drive alone. I give the kid credit – but giving him so much credit just left me unsatisfied.

And because everyone ascribed Facebook’s stellar growth to some alchemy borne of CEO-HERO brilliance, people are willing to suspend critical thought to its value and its future.

For me, the Facebook mystery deepened. At a most fundamental level, why was Facebook worth so much?

The answer came to me in a blinding flash from a recent Harvard Business Review article (“Your brain on Facebook” ) that describes the neuroscience behind Facebook’s meteoric rise. In fact, “a decade’s worth of work reveals some unexpected quirks of the brain that all link to one big idea” – we are social creatures with a “social brain” and that drives a lot of behavior in a lot of unexpected ways.

“Here’s how the social brain works. There is a “default” brain network that is always “on” and it is involved in thinking about yourself and other people.  When not doing anything else, the brain’s favorite pastime is to think about people. We actually have to suppress the activity in this region when we want to do any active processing, such as doing math.” But in the absence of any other cognitive activity – our social brain kicks in!

This explains why Facebook can capture so much of our attention because, neurologically speaking, we are wired to be addicted to being social and “connecting” and “liking”. And like any other addiction, the reward centers in our brain seek ever more satisfaction just to stay “normal.” If you spend a lot of time on Facebook, you are basically “high” all the time. That makes it really hard to focus, think deeply, or perhaps learn something new.

Now that gives a new spin to the term The Facebook Effect because we are, in effect, wired to become Facebook junkies.

That explains, for example, the irrational exuberance the market places in Facebook’s future. It also puts a new spin on Mark Zuckerberg’s success. No doubt he is clever but maybe his real luck was that he became the first efficient digital distributor of social addiction.

Gives one pause – doesn’t it? As well it should and you would not be alone. More and more “resisters”, people to who shun Facebook, are coming forward as an emerging trend. More and more, people are getting ready to kick the Facebook habit:

Over 82.2% of people would not pay for Facebook according to a HuffingtonPost poll – April 25, 2012

-  As Facebook grows, millions say, ‘no, thanks’ – USAToday May 16, 2012

-    “Facebook Loses $10mm From General Motors – HuffingtonPost May 17, 2012

-  Silicon Valley Can Do Better Than Facebook – TechCrunch May 20, 2012

What’s next for Facebook as it starts business Monday morning as a public company? I have no idea but while many of us may be hooked on Facebook now – it only takes one disruptor to knock the addiction from our system.

The only question is who or what will that be.

Judy Shapiro

Why the “cha ching” of the $1B Instagram sale might actually bankrupt Boomer parents.

By now, most of you have heard of Facebook’s $1Billion sale of Instagram, an app developed by a bunch of young 20 somethings that lets users post photos. Today, Instagram has about 50 million users which works out to about $20/ person. “Cha ching” for anyone involved …

Punditry aside about whether it is a shrewd deal for Facebook – instead of “cha ching” – all I hear is hissing as the air escapes from Boomers’ retirement funds.

It is alarming and here’s what I mean.

You see, I have worked with tech ventures for over a dozen years, starting at Bell Labs New Ventures and continuing to this very day. In that time, I have worked with many startups, often gratis, because it’s so rewarding when my expertise can really make a difference in the early days of a venture. CEOs have the product vision but they rarely have marketing know-how to get the product to market.  That’s where I step in. I help startups assess their market potential so they can monetize.

And in the dozen years or so I have been doing this, I see an alarming new twist to the never ending parade of venture dreams that haunts me. I liken it to the disturbing “Gold Rush” era where many more prospecting failures bankrupted folks versus the rare, outlier successes.

In today’s day and age – here is how it goes down.

Johnny or Jane are in college and – wham – they hatch an idea for a company often inspired by the innovation incubators on every campus. The idea grabs their passionate attention because at least they can try and make it happen versus trying to get a job which is tough and depressing.

Mr. and Mrs. SupportiveParents are happy their kids have found something that inspires them, so they cover more of their kids’ living expenses so the kids can commit themselves to their “passion.”

After about three or four months, their idea has some substance and the kids realize they need some money to create a “demo”. Of course, there is no cogent business plan (if a business plan even exists) but Mr. and Mrs. SupportiveParents kick in the $10,000 or $20,000 to create said demo –  on top of the extra expenses they are already incurring to keep their kids in school. (This is when you can start to hear the air escaping from Mr. and Mrs. SupportiveParents 401K accounts!)

A couple of months later said demo is “almost done” but not quite because the kids did not really do a business plan and as they worked, the idea kept changing (translation = more cost). “But I only need another $20,000 to finish it off. Then it will take off because it is so cool. Please …” Again, as we would expect, Mr. and Mrs. SupportiveParents step in and shell out what their kids need.

Slowly but surely, over time, as their kids refine their idea; there is steady attrition of the parents’ savings plans because startups need constant funds. This tableau is playing out again and again and I know it because I have met too many Mr. and Mrs. SupportiveParents in the last few months who have depleted their savings by $150,000 or more to help their kids live their passion.

It is frightening to see since most new ventures are “high risk” in the best of circumstances, making them wholly unsuitable investments for most any Boomer given their proximity to retirement.  And if that’s not bad enough, it’s even worse once you understand that kids’ ventures, proportionately, have a higher mortality rate because they are borne of 90% enthusiasm and 10% practicality despite their parents’ 100% support 100% of the time.

This is a dangerous combination – especially in frothy times like ours where opportunities for kids are limited yet perversely, the potential for untold wealth is tantalizingly possible.

And this brings me back my point. The Instagram sale was an aberration – a fluke – an outlier event – possible because of a unique set of circumstances. Yet it infused a new level of Gold Rush fervor into the passionate hearts of ambitious young entrepreneurs despite the reality that the chances of striking it rich today are about equal to striking it rich in the Gold Rush of 1848.  And just as sadly, their loving parents are funding these ventures despite the improbable odds.

So while many people hear the “cha ching” of $1B, all I hear is the air escaping from parent’s retirement funds. It is not a happy sound. Not at all.

Judy Shapiro

P.S. – I am posting this as my personal Mother’s Day present to Mrs. SupportiveParent. Be careful – please!

The Surprised Entrepreneur – Why Me?

These posts about my journey with this new venture are often characterized as a surprise. In fact, it’s a surprise on so many levels that the unlikeliness of this enterprise is, in itself, a pretty big surprise.

So in this sea of surprises – the biggest surprise rests in the unlikeliness of me as the one to coalesce this vision; only useful to ponder so that we know what makes us different from many other marketing tech companies out there today.

Clearly I am an outlier given my age, gender, training and temperament causing even the casual observer to wonder: “Why me?”

On the surface, one could point to my diversity of experience spanning B2B and B2C marketing. I’ve been fortunate to have worked in a diversity of industries spanning advertising (NWAyer), technology (Bell Labs, CloudLinux), software (CA, Comodo) and telecommunications (AT&T, Lucent, and Paltalk). The combination means I have a quirky understanding of how to look at a marketing situation from the brand point of view as well as the end-user perspective at the same time.

O.K. – That begins to answer the question but doesn’t wholly get at it since many of my colleagues are tech savvy too. While they express curiosity about the new marketing technology, they aren’t going off and creating new businesses.  Instead, most of my friends leading marketing agencies or marketing departments (like I was) are banging their heads against the marketing brick wall trying to figure out how to incorporate the “new” technologies into the “old” system profitably. In the chaos of “creative destruction” (a term coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter), my peers can’t see the marketing forest for the financial trees.

So again I ask; Why me?

In digging deeper, I then realize that my experience with communications networks gave me a unique understanding about social networks. Both types of networks serve a similar purpose – the efficient transport of a call or a marketing message from the network edge (the initiation point) through the switching stations along its way to its ultimate destination.

Side by Side Comparison: Telecom vs Social Media Network

It also became clear to me that as social networks evolved into a powerful marketing network – it urgently needed system architects. But I saw no hint of any serious understanding of the issue or how to address it – not at the agencies or the social network companies or even the armies of consultants who offer insights but few tactical road maps.

When at first I noted this architecture gap back in 2010, I wondered out loud in Ad Age about the impracticality of integrating new technologies into existing marketing systems in posts like “Five Trends That Marked TechCrunch Disrupt Conference 2010.”  Then, my wonderment continued unabated at the lack of system attention when I wrote: “Has Facebook jumped the Shark”. Actually, I was writing mostly in the hopes of uncovering the technology companies that were focused on solving this system gap. I knew someone had to it…

But all I heard was deafening silence. I seemed rather alone in recognizing the utter futility of trying to retro-fit the older marketing system with the newer technologies. The sheer tonnage of all these new marketing “platforms;” so defined because they incorporated some combination of the mighty  local, social, mobile triad; were built by technologists (usually under 30) and not marketers. This meant they were long on cool but pathetically short on practicality. Yet as slim as many of these businesses seemed, they were getting valuations disproportionate to their real world usefulness (think Groupon), further highlighting the underlying weakening of the business of marketing.  It was an ominous echo from a decade ago.

This explains “Why me.” It takes depth of experience to see beyond the buzz to the potent marketing model evolving. I wanted a role in that evolution largely because it seemed few of us with any real world marketing experience were doing the heavy lifting of operationalizing the brilliance of all this new technology.

The journey to understand “Why me” is useful in that it defines the business we are in – creating the system upon which the rich marketing innovation engine can flourish.  It’s a surprise that it is me – but perhaps, this is the sweetest surprise of all.

Judy Shapiro

The surprised entrepreneur – I’m having the time of my life.

I am not sure what I expected to be doing at this point in my career. I have been blessed to have been at the center of the changing, blossoming technology landscape of the last 20+ years.  My earliest days were at an advertising agency called NW Ayer which gave me a broad perspective on Corporate America’s practices, problems and possibilities for triumph. I then gracefully made my way into the tech stars of Corporate America itself with stints at AT&T, Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies and Computer Associates. I also had the great good fortune of working at small innovative technology companies led by visionary innovative leaders. Two prime examples include Melih Abdulhayoglu, CEO of Comodo and Jason Katz, CEO of Paltalk.

This unusual combination of corporate marketing experience coupled with the feet on the streets training born of working at tech startups, gave me a balanced perspective of how the marketing business is evolving in this technology driven world.

So here we are.

The marketing business is going through a fundamental shift that throws into question almost every tactical practice built over the last 20 years. And, amazingly, it seems that just as marketing becomes this new discipline that weaves creativity into an interactive user experience that is tech heavy – it’s a perfect fit for my peculiar type of networking meets technology marketer experience.  

This seems nothing short of extraordinary. Which is why I am all the more stunned at the work I am doing today. I had not planned on any such seismic move in marketing, so I certainly did not plan on launching a marketing tech venture.

But here I am.

My journey has been one of surprising excitement at the possibilities in marketing excellence that was simply not possible before. The vision of this venture, therefore, is to take advantage of these new trends to deliver a sustainable and productive “marketing machine” (a phrase I attribute to Melih) that can turn the tables on how marketing gets done.

In our vision, we don’t approach monetization like Google or Facebook’s who are about pushing more accurate marketing messages to consumers. We are looking to deliver a marketing platform that lets consumers decide what content they see, what ads they see, how their social networks are managed, how they conduct commerce, even how they communicate within the social networks. The organizing principle for this platform is not ad-driven monetization but oriented around Judy Consumer. Our vision is to create the kind of system that we want to live with for the next 10 years . In effect, we want to give Judy Consumer the tech power to create her own personal “Trust Web.”

To the few friends we have shared our vision with – all have come to a similar conclusion – it is an ambitious (maybe too ambitious) vision. They are correct. But as I entered marketing in the 1980s most of marketing at first was human powered with marketing systems emerging later on.  

And here we are – again.

This next generation collection of marketing technologies is rich in creativity but is not organized for sustainable marketing programs for brands. This is work that I, among others, are focused on – creating v1.0 systems to operationalize the business of social marketing.  

We are all at just at the beginning of this journey and it’s a journey I didn’t expect to be taking at this point.

But here I am – and much to my surprise – I am having the time of my life.

Judy Shapiro

Crystal ball was not needed to predict Google Wave would fail

Forgive a momentary “I told you so” outburst because back in October 2009 as the tech world was dazzled by the Google Wave launch, I somewhat singularly wondered publically about whether it would succeed in a piece in Ad Age entitled:  “Google Wave should beware of the Communications and Collaboration Pitch”

It was an unpopular position to take at the time; after all, Google “Anything” was considered magic.  And after less than a year, being right like this is no fun actually because behind the failure are real people who invested a lot of heart and soul. It is a bitter pill to swallow.

History is a great teacher and in the Ad Age piece, I provide a history lesson on how “communication and collaboration” failed commercially utterly in the 1990s:

“Looking back at it now, I realize what we failed to do last time around is to symbiotically couple this whiz-bang technology with fulfilling a fundamental dimension of our humanity. Technology by itself is sterile and a communication and collaboration play was pretty sterile sounding.”

I also generously give them the secret of how to get it right given what we learned in our previous failed attempts to market unified collaboration platforms:

“This time round, though, Google Wave really has a chance to get it right if it forges a tight symbiotic link between this technology and a core element of our humanity.”

Finally, I gave them what I believed to be the secret to success with Google Wave. Clearly they ignored my sage advice (even if I do say so myself):

“It all comes down to understanding that Google Wave should be about the creation and management of our trusted communities. And if it can take those bonds and marry them with real-time, unified communications, the product has the makings of a technology milestone. But without the human dimension of community, “communications and collaboration” are just technologies. And technologies alone will not “connect” with Judy Consumer. At least it never has before.”

Never to put too subtle a point on it, I expanded my arguments and provided even more detail in a post here entitled; “What might Twitter and Facebook teach Google Wave about market success.” I fully explain why Google Wave has the potential to be a paradigm shift:

“Now I think Google Wave has the potential to be a technological milestone because it merges unified collaboration and communications (not new) within the fertile soil of a trusted community (this is new). “Pull” models coming online now enable this combination of dynamics to “gel” into a platform that can be vibrant and paradigm shifting. …”

I ended this piece in October 2009 hopeful; “I suspect that if anyone will know how to use this treasure it will be Google. I am rooting for them.”

So much for a happy ending :( .

Judy Shapiro

A stranger in a strange land.

I am humbly borrowing that title from Robert A. Heinlein, one of my fav scifi authors of all time, but it captured my state of mind one afternoon as I was “working Facebook”.

You see, FB is not my social network of choice. I’m a hard core LinkedIn girl. LI is clear – business networking for business folks. Got it.

FB on the other hand is a weird mix of personal and business and trolls. Next to my niece’s picture of her (adorable) 3 year old is an important business announcement for a business luncheon that I wanted to attend. I click on what I think is a link for the luncheon information and I land on the home page of “someone” – not sure who and their niece’s pictures. At this point, I have no idea where I am.

I am a stranger in a strange land.

The strange land I speak of is where, unlike my real world, our social networks are morphing into a communications hub that has jumbled my life into a digital tangle of personal, business and many combinations in between.

I am a stranger in a stranger land.

In the real world, our social networks are well organized across “functional lines” – the parents in my kids school is one network, my business contacts is another or my relatives yet another etc etc. We keep these networks distinct unless during a crisis or some trigger event, e.g. your child is trying to get into a particular school, you create a temporary real time network of people from all your networks who can help you with this task. But once the need is gone, this “impromptu network” dissipates.

But in this strange new world, the networks intermix in a way that I find unproductive. In  this strange new world “on the fly” associations I create for a specific task become hardened in stone well beyond their usefulness.  

In the real world, my social networks are under my control – in this brave, new world – it seems – not so much.

I guess I find it strange. So does “Judy Consumer”.

Judy Shapiro

What do Ninja Turtles, Facebook, Hush Puppies and Pokémon all have in common?

The answer reveals the secrets to creating a viral marketing machine.

Back when I worked on the Hawaiian Punch business for P&G, we spent a fair amount of time analyzing how “fads” became popular with kids. We tried to understand what ignited meteoric “viral” success. We learned some ingredients of viral campaigns –  ease of acquisition, transmission and novelty –  but we never really cracked the code of how to predictably recreate a viral marketing engine.

For the last few years, there have been a host of books presenting research on how to create a viral marketing engine. These texts add insight into the dynamics of viral marketing, but they fail to define how to execute viral marketing well. How, for instance, do you realistically and reliably identify influencers or content creators or mavens?

Then, just as these concepts were making their way into marketing models, newer work by Duncan Watts seems to suggest that many previous models are not, scientifically speaking, valid. He argues that influencers are not all that influential after all. For something to go viral, he believes, is a function of among other things – “right time and right place,” he says.

How then can marketers effectively utilize this seemingly arbitrary dynamic? While researchers like Watts are still experimenting with new models, I’ll offer my own. My model lacks any published scientific study, but it is a theory grounded in understanding that breakthroughs happen when we blend science with human nature. So here goes.

When we think about wildly popular trends, from Pokémon to Facebook, they have a few things in common. They were all easy to share, they all presented a novel experience and the activity was largely democratic – easy for most people to participate.  But they also share one other, very important ingredient – they all powerfully satisfy our insatiable human need for “fun”. Yep, that’s it.

Now before you reject “fun” as being too lightweight in strategic value to drive business, it will be instructive to look at the iconic viral success stories for answers.

Let’s start with Ninja Turtles or Pokémon. Their success was grounded in the fact that their fun was incredibly engaging on many levels. They provided different modes of play (cards, video games etc), the fun was easy to transport and play could last hours. “Fun” explains the venerable viral success story of Hush Puppies because Hush Puppies reminded us of when we were kids and fun ruled. Fun by association works as well.

Now let’s look at, arguably the most successful viral engine ever – Facebook. When we apply the “fun” filter we see they carefully baked “fun” into every crevice of the user lifecycle – from encouraging friends to find each other and once found, to the plethora of fun ways for the friends to remain connected.

With this new understanding of balancing the latest scientific thinking with the human element of fun, here’s what a workable viral marketing engine might look like:

  • Enable easy content distribution.
    • Bake in the “6 degrees of distribution” as Watts demonstrated to ensure that messages can be easily transmitted.
  • Elevate “fun” to a strategic initiative in customer lifecycle management strategies.
    • Concentrate on creating a fun experience throughout users’ experience – from the moment you try to acquire them through every interaction with you.
  • Promote as broadly as possible.
    • Duncan Watts advocates for mass reach in digital campaigns because without enough reach, you may not have enough “fun distributors” to get the job done.  Tonnage is one of the secrets of viral success (counter intuitive as that sounds).
  • Timing can improve the odds of viral success.
    • Until the day that some clever researcher can scientifically figure out how to time “fads” (and maybe the stock markets too), this is probably the most challenging element in this model to execute. To stack the “timing” odds in your favor, troll the edgy blogs to see what’s percolating.
  • Create community to extend the fun.
    • Create an opportunity for people to relive the fun via community building programs, whether this is a Facebook group or a formal community. Done well, it is a powerful brand extender.

So there you have it – the new viral marketing engine based on the dual foundation of scientific research coupled with the pure joy of delivering fun. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Facebook people. They made “friend requests” fun and built an empire.

Reprinted from a MediaPost article on October 13, 2009

Judy Shapiro

Contemplative Silence

September is a time that evokes contemplation.

It is a time of new beginnings; kids start school, college or their first jobs. September is the beginning of the critical 4th qtr business cycle. And in September the Jewish New Year process (all 8 weeks of it starting with Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippor 10 days later to the final capstone of the New Year’s process with the 8-day holiday Sukkoth) occupies a fair amount of one’s waking time.

All this change and transition drives contemplation. Hence my silence for the last few weeks. But with contemplation comes inspiration and new potential to drive progress.

So what have I been thinking about?

I have been thinking about connections and how people connect in today’s super-hyped connected, digitized, info  Judy Consumersaturated world. I have been thinking about how Judy Consumer within a mere few years has had to absorb an astonishing amount “new” connection possibilities … from friends finding her (many of whom she would have rather not found her), to strangers claiming to be her friends to insta-info with Twitter and so on.

How does she think about all this connectivity? Who does she trust to start a connection with? Which connections are helpful or dangerous? When should Judy Consumer be visible to the open, social world and when should she guard her privacy?

It seems that communications innovation engine is coming at Judy Consumer at an accelerated rate – kinda like a mini version of Kurzweil’s “knee of the curve” principle outlined in the book, The Singularity is Near. In communications technology, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The new, mobile applications or the new expanding lifecasting capability from the social networking folks open a whole new horizon of connection capability for Judy Consumer.

New beginnings – you bet. But “fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy ride”…

Judy Shapiro

www.twitter.com/judyshapiro

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