January 22, 2008

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The Universal Marketer's Fantasy: Unleashing The Next Big Thing Every marketer fantasizes about initiating the next hot thing. Much of our experimentation with MySpace and Facebook and other social networks are attempts to unleash the next viral wave that creates overnight worldwide awareness, excitement, sensation and demand. As a fantasy its a good one -- meaty, excruciatingly difficult to do with an outside shot at success -- since no one has really defined or benchmarked how a single meme spreads exponentially and engulfs the mainstream like a virus or a forest fire. In fact many of us suspect that the big hits we've witnessed were random lucky events, like a lightening strike, rather than planned campaigns following a formula for success. The randomness of the intermittent and disproportionate smash hit makes the fantasy richer and stokes our jealousy for those who actually bring the world something new or different. Yet according to Clive Thompson, writing in the February issue of Fast Company, the "Tipping Point" notion authored by Malcom Gladwell and extended to online and social network marketing to Influentials by Ed Keller, currently President of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, and Jon Berry is being directly and seriously challenged by statistical analysis done by Duncan Watts, a former Columbia University sociologist now consulting with Yahoo. The debate and the reportage of the debate challenges some of the new orthodoxy among web marketers in search of the next big score. Gladwell's theory is that when enough cool people embrace an idea it reaches the "tipping point" and gushes into the mainstream like a virus. Keller and Barry built on this idea and argue that if you zero in on Influentials-- well networked opinion-leaders and taste-makers -- and sell them first or capture their imaginations they'll spread the word for you faster and wider than you could do yourself. Watts mapped influential networks to try to understand how these people operate and what exactly they do to persuade others. Having looked across campaigns, he argues its all random. That while Influentials may extend an idea or a campaign farther and faster than the average audience, they have no special or incremental role as initiators of a new idea. Instead, on the basis of a bunch of experiments, he thinks that its not who starts or who blesses a trend, but rather its the receptivity of the network or the audience to the idea that creates a significant take off. His analogy is the forest fire. When the forest is very dry, when the winds are right in direction and velocity, when the fire starts in the right place and when fire fighting efforts are slow, stymied or ineffective, a small fire becomes an inferno. In other cases it burns itself out quickly. The critical element is not the transmission system, its the underlying conditions that prepare the ground. In case of humans, community sensibilities, readiness, genuine needs and openness to a new thing accelerates awareness, acceptance and pass-along. His experimental data suggests that these are random events with no discernible pattern or reproducible formulas. It happens when it happens. There are no identified ways to artificially make it happen. "Its less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public's mood,...The network effects in society are too complex - too weird and unpredictable - to work that way. If it were just a matter of tipping the crucial first adapters, why can't most companies do it reliably?" Watts is quoted as saying. This shifts the marketers burden away from carefully targeting the network of influentials in favor of better understanding and tapping into the consciousness of the moment. This validates the gut hunch theory that has sustained the careers of a zillion traditional ad guys who are fighting a rear guard action against the data wonks of online marketing who are successfully eating their lunch. And it will kick the wind out of PR guys pitching corporations to give endless amounts of swag to Hollywood starlets in the hope of prompting global monkey-see/monkey-do buying sprees. The 64 million dollar question is: Can you reproduce a hot trend? Can a marketer devise a series of activities to create, ignite and accelerate massive uptake of an idea, product or service? Watts thinks so and is working and consulting with clients for big bucks on a formula that looks n awful lot like mass advertising + targeted segments + viral idea = campaign. Not exactly the marketing equivalent of Einstein"s Theory of Relativity. Much...
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Want Fries With That? McDonald's didn't invent incremental selling. But they nearly perfected it by training their cadre to utter the most profitable phrase in the English language and in so doing proved that up-selling and cross-selling can be achieved at scale. The beauty of the phrase, and the effort behind it, lies in it's confluence of simplicity, intention, timing, and context. In 4 words an average employee can change everything. Allow me to deconstruct the process. Timing. Mcdonald's asks in the moment; during that surge of desire and need that prompts the initial purchase. Hormones and flavor receptors are pre-emptively firing as the counter person offers gently to add to the merriment. Who can resist the promise of much more happiness for just a few more cents. The tactic holds true for anyone. Ask when they have bought, are happy and eager to take delivery and are open to an incremental experience. It helps when the person delivering the first bunch of good news offers the second. You fed me and saved me from hunger and now you're adding another goodie to my plate. The combination of timing and casting are very hard to resist. Limit the Ask. The McDonald's pitch trades less than a buck for added food. The intention is to extend the experience and sell an incremental amount. Both are designed to keep you coming back and build long term brand loyalty. These baby steps keep customers relaxed because they don't trigger a negative response and they don't feel too pushy. The absolute and relative amount of the ask, in cash and in decision-power, are small and incremental. They ask for the next logical thing which doesn't multiply the cost, makes sense and is probably something you were thinking about anyway. Don't try to ram a huge deal down someone's throat after you make a small deal. Connect the dots for your customer and anticipate what he might need subsequent to the goods or services you are currently delivering. It also helps not to switch-pitch the personnel. Have the one they love make the pitch. Simplicity. Everyone gets it. Anyone can say it. Served up in context two beats after you make your buy, It has a tentative feel to it. McDonald's can short circuit any negative reaction because its an implied service not a real sales pitch and its easy to quickly step back from a negative response with a no-harm/no-foul attitude. And if you don't buy right now, it doesn't matter. The best sales happen easily, logically and clearly. Everyone knows what is offered, instantly perceives the values in-play and can react easily and simply. Structure your pitch in this context. Anything that needs a big set-up and a complex rationalization won't fly as an up-sell or a cross-sell. Also it has to be perceived as if it doesn't matter all that much to the seller. No desperate sales get made this way. Stand-Up for Yourself. Implicit in the phrase is the understanding that McDonald's has great food that customers appreciate along with great service, prices and the brand. The ask leverages the brand equity and the brand experience in a way that is seamless. Don't beg for the next deal. Drive it logically out of the value you've provided and the relationship you've built. Don't be bashful or reticent to ask happy customers to buy more of the good stuff you are providing and they need.

Danny Flamberg

I am a veteran marketing consultant working with leading and emerging brands

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