The Maths of Successful Viral Marketing

In Viral Marketing for the Real World (HBR, May 2007), Duncan Watts and Jonah Peretti describe a simple way to make viral campaigns successful, even when they don’t go past the ‘tipping point’.

Malcolm Gladwell first described the ‘Tipping Point’ concept in his book of the same name. It describes how ideas spread, in a fashion similar to epidemics, with each person exposed to the idea sharing it with others, in an ever-expanding circle of ‘infected’ people who become aware of the idea. The ‘Tipping Point’ concept has itself ‘tipped’ among marketeers worldwide, albeit with the help of some good old-fashioned marketing techniques.

Watts and Peretti describe the mathematics of the Tipping Point concept. Chart 1 below shows how ideas ‘tip’ when the number of people exposed to an idea, known as ‘seeds’, go on to share it with more than one other person.

However, when each seed shares it with less than one person on the average, then the idea is doomed to never tip (see chart 2) making it a failure, especially if it happens to be a costly marketing campaign attempting to make use of Gladwell’s concept.

However, marketeers can get around this problem by maximizing the number of ‘seeds’ whom they reach at the initial stage of their campaigns.

Chart 3 illustrates the value of a high-seed campaign with rate of reproduction below the Tipping Point – start with a lot of seeds and the total number of people reached is still pretty high.

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