Unleashing the Ideavirus [Book Summary]

Unleashing the Ideavirus [Book Summary]


The decline of interruption marketing

Marketing by interrupting people isn't cost-effective anymore.  You can't afford to seek out people and send them unwanted marketing messages, in large groups, and hope that some will send you money.

Instead, the future belongs to marketers who establish a foundation and process where interested people can market to each other. Ignite consumer networks and then get out of the way and let them talk.


An ideavirus is a big idea that runs amok across the target audience.  It's a fashionable idea that propagates through a section of the population, teaching and changing and influencing everyone it touches.

Have you ever heard of Hotmail?  If so, it's not because Hotmail ran a lot of TV ads (they didn't).  What about a Polaroid camera?  Was your first exposure in a TV ad, or did you discover it when you saw a friend using it?

In the old days, the way we sold a product was through interruption marketing.  We'd run ads, interrupt people with unanticipated, impersonal, irrelevant ads and hope that they'd buy something.  The advantage of this strategy is that the marketer is in complete control.  The disadvantage is that it's hard and expensive.

What marketers are searching for is a way to circumvent the tyranny of cost-per-thousand interruptions.  They need something that ignites, a way to tap into the invisible currents that run between and among consumers, and they need to help those currents move in better, faster, more profitable ways.  Instead of talking to consumers, they have to help consumers talk to each other.

In creating an ideavirus, the advertiser creates an environment in which the idea can replicate and spreadIt's the virus that does the work, not the marketer.

Concentrating the message

One of the key elements in launching an ideavirus is concentrating the message.  If just 1% or even 15% of a group is excited about your idea, it's not enough.  You only win when you totally dominate and amaze the group you've targeted.  That's why focusing obsessively on a geographic or demographic or psychographic group is a common trait among successful idea merchants.


  • MEDIUM - In order to move, an idea has to be encapsulated in a medium.  It could be a picture, a written article, a movie, even a mathematical formula (E = mc2).  The medium determines how smooth the ideavirus is, as well as the velocity of its growth.

  • VELOCITY - How fast the idea spreads from one party to another.

  • SMOOTHNESS - How easy it is for an end user to spread the ideavirus.  Can I click on one button or mention some magic phrase, or do I have to go through hoops and risk embarrassment to tell someone about it?

  • HIVE - People are not one amorphous mass.  We're self-organised into groups, or hives that have several things in common:  a way to communicate among ourselves, spoken or unspoken rules and standards, and a common history.

  • SNEEZER - Some people are more likely to tell their friends about a great new idea.

  • VECTOR - As an ideavirus moves through a population, it usually follows a vector.  It could be a movement toward a certain geographic or demographic.  E.g. Napster vectored straight to college kids.

  • PERSISTENCE - Some ideas stick around a long time with each person, whereas others have a much shorter half-life before they fade out.

  • AMPLIFIER - A key difference between word of mouth and an ideavirus is that word of mouth dies out while an ideavirus gets bigger.  Something amplifies the recommendations to a far larger audience (e.g. it could be a good review in the New York Times).

Things ideaviruses have in common:

  1. Many ideaviruses are accidents, but it is possible to dramatically increase the chances your ideavirus will spread.

  2. An ideavirus adores a vacuum.

  3. Once an ideavirus spreads, it follows a lifecycle.  Ignore the lifecycle and the ideavirus will die out.

  4. Viral marketing is a special case of an ideavirus - it is when the carrier of the virus is the product.

Zipf's law

We live in a winner-take-almost-all world (Zipf's law).  Ideaviruses are win/lose propositions.  Either the velocity and smoothness are high enough that it becomes a bonafide epidemic, or they're not and it dies out.  Either your ideavirus works or it doesn't.  Smart propagators know when to quit if their ideavirus isn't working.

The wrong sort of buzz

Websites fail because they pay millions to AOL or Yahoo for "traffic" - but that's exactly the wrong sort of buzz.  The alternative - focusing on people who can promote your site, affiliate programmes, unique promotions, and building wow, zing and magic into the site - is just too much work for most sites.

The end of the zero-sum game

Traditional advertising is a game of winners and losers.  If your product gets attention from the targeted consumer, you win "mindshare" and your customer loses time.

The ideavirus works differently.  If there's a great idea, and it moves through the hive for free, everyone who touches it wins:

  • You as the consumer win for recommending it to a friend; it increases your status.

  • The recipient benefits, from the way the idea changes his life, and because he now has the ability to sneeze the idea to someone else, thus increasing his power.

  • The creator of the idea succeeds because her idea propagates and she can sell things to people who are now open and receptive to her idea.

The decision to sneeze is made by each of us as to whether to clog our friend's email with the virus in question, because our (local, at least) reputation is at stake.

How to unleash an ideavirus

The heart of the ideavirus: sneezers

Some people are far more likely to spread an ideavirus than others.  Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) calls this the Law of the Few and breaks the key virus spreaders into three groups: Connectors, Mavens, and Salespeople.  Sneezers are at the core of any ideavirus.  Sneezers are the ones who when they tell 10 or 20 or 100 people - people believe them.

There are two basic kinds of sneezers:

  1. Promiscuous sneezers - This is your uncle, the insurance salesman.  The promiscuous sneezers are members of a hive who can be counted on to try to "sell" their favourite ideavirus to almost anyone, almost any time.  Promiscuous sneezers can be motivated by money.  Promiscuous sneezers are rarely held in high esteem as opinion leaders, but if they are promiscuous enough they can be extremely effective.

  2. Powerful sneezers - E.g. the hat business receiving a boost from Harrison Ford's portrayal of Indiana Jones.  The paradox of the powerful sneezer is that he can't be bought - every time a powerful sneezer accepts a bribe in exchange for spreading a virus, his power decreases.

How to attract and keep promiscuous sneezers

There are six key principles:

  1. Make big promises.  Certain rewards, though small, are not as enticing as slightly less certain rewards that are much larger.

  2. Show them how to make it up in volume.  Make it clear to the promiscuous sneezer that the system can be gamed: let them know that if they work the system, the odds of winning go way up.

  3. Describe an attainable path.  Show the sneezer how smooth the system is.

  4. When one succeeds, tell the rest of them.  Announce your most successful affiliates.

  5. Give the successful ones a way to show the non-sneezers it worked.  Mary Kay Cosmetics gives its best salespeople a pink Cadillac.  It is a persistent amplifier of this sneezer's success!

  6. Have a Mary Kay convention.  Get together with your best promiscuous sneezers.

The two things that you can do to completely wreck your network of promiscuous sneezers are:

  1. Change the rules in the middle - all hell will break loose, the very best sneezers may start sneezing against your company!

  2. View the relationship as an expense - don't try to trim the benefits that you offer your sneezers or the effort you put into keeping them happy.

There are three levers that determine how your ideavirus will spread:

  1. How big do you launch?  If you're entering a vacuum and there's plenty of competition on the horizon, launching big (while more expensive) can increase the chances that you'll succeed.

  2. How smooth is it?  Persistence matters because the longer people are sneezing about your idea, the more people they infect.  Cool is critical because if it's not virusworthy, it's just not going to take off.  But smooth is essential because if you make it easy for the virus to spread, it's more likely to do so. An ideavirus spreads the fastest when it's smooth.  E.g. "member get member" programmes, and "click here to send this article to a friend" links.

  3. How can you turn trial into persistence?  Sooner or later you've got to turn momentary attention into an embrace of your idea.  For example, 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 to them about this new way of life.

Thirteen questions ideavirus marketers want answered:

  1. Have we chosen a hive we're capable of dominating?

  2. How likely are the powerful sneezers to adopt our virus?

  3. Do we know who the powerful sneezers are and how to contact them?

  4. What can we do to make our product more virusworthy?

  5. Are we prepared to reward promiscuous sneezers sufficiently?

  6. Have we figured out what we want the sneezers to say? How are we teaching them to say it?

  7. Even if our product isn't purely viral, how can we add viral marketing to it?

  8. Do we know how to get permission from people once they've been touched by the virus?  Do we know what to say after we get permission?

  9. How smooth is the transfer of the ideavirus?

  10. Is our offering good enough to wow this hive?

  11. Do we have the resources and time to dominate this hive before others rush in to fill the vacuum?

  12. Have we built in multiple feedback loops so we can alter the virus as it moves and grows?

  13. Have we identified the vector we want the virus to move in?

Five ways to unleash an ideavirus:

  1. Go full viral - E.g. Hotmail or Polaroid.  Viral marketing.

  2. Pay off the promiscuous - E.g. Amazon's affiliate programme.

  3. Make it smooth for the powerful - Identify the powerful members of a hive and make it as easy as possible for them to tell others in the hive about an ideavirus.

  4. Digitally augment word of mouth - E.g. book reviews on Amazon, comments on newsgroups, etc.

  5. Altruism - E.g. the restaurant that doesn't allow walk-in clients, only allowing members.  Members are allowed to sponsor other members.  Members become powerful sneezers because they can "get you in" to the hottest restaurant in town.  i.e. the restaurant gave the members an altruistic tool.

The ideavirus formula

The ideavirus formula is:

Multiply these five factors:

  1. Reputation benefit to powerful sneezer of recommending virus.

  2. Selfish benefit to promiscuous sneezer of recommending virus.

  3. Smoothness of sharing the virus with a friend - does it have a hard-to-say name or an embarrassing implication?

  4. Power of the amplifier used to spread positive word of mouth.

  5. Frequency of interactions among hive members - some hives (e.g. teenage girls) interact with each other far more frequently than others (e.g. senior citizens).  Concentrate on intense periods of interaction, e.g. trade shows.

Divide by the sum of these two factors:

  1. Number of times you need to expose someone in this hive in order for the virus to catch. E.g. it only takes one exposure to the Macarena to get it.

  2. Number of different sneezers who have to recommend a virus to a given individual for it to ignite. E.g. when there are 50 people posting a positive review of a book on Amazon, it counts for something.

And then multiply that by the product of these four factors:

  1. % of infected hive members likely to sneeze.

  2. Number of people the infected sneezer is likely to contact - to increase this, offer increasing returns to the sneezer ('the more you bring us, the more we give you' affiliate programme).

  3. Persistence of the virus (how long does a sneezer sneeze?) - E.g. tattoos are extraordinarily persistent.

  4. Number of people infected /(divided by) number of people in the hive - if too small a percentage of your chosen hive have been infected, the virus will fade before it catches on.

The eight underlying variables in the ideavirus formula are:

  1. Sneezers - There are two kinds: powerful and promiscuous.  Choose your sneezers - don't let them choose you.

  2. Hive - Choose your hive first, then build the idea.  Attack small but intimate hives.  The mistake that's so easy to make is to get greedy as you choose your hive, to say,
    > "this product is for everyone".

  3. Velocity - E.g. Napster spread initially in college campuses, a hotbed of communication.

  4. Vector - E.g. you won't vector to iPhone users if your website isn't iPhone compatible.

  5. Medium - E.g. the photobooths in Japan that print 16 little one-square inch images on stickers, which Japanese schoolgirls like to hand out to their friends.  The medium is the person-to-person exchange of stickers.

  6. Smoothness - the goal being a virus so smooth that once someone is exposed to it, they are instantly hooked (they immediately "get it").

  7. Persistence - E.g. Blackberries; so many people are using it so often that you're constantly reminded that unless you get one, you're a loser.

  8. Amplifier - Unamplified word of mouth dies off too soon to be much good to your business.  Create a system that allows the positive word of mouth to be amplified.