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How Ideas Spread

2009 November 8

In 1865, Gregor Mendel published the paper that established him as the father of genetics. However, it went largely unnoticed until it was rediscovered decades later and became widely recognized as one of the great discoveries in the history of science.

Why do some ideas quickly spread far and wide while others go nowhere at all?

Now that we are in the midst of a communication revolution, the problem of understanding how ideas spread has taken on greater significance.  Some serious thinking has been done about it and important insights have been gained.  It’s worth some time and effort to take a look.

The most obvious place to start is epidemics.

The SIR Model of Epidemics

The standard for studying epidemics is the SIR model, which has been around since 1927.  Elaborations have been made since then, but the basic model is still applied not only to biological epidemics, but to computer viruses and communication as well.

The basics are simple and straightforward.  The model has three stages: Susceptible, Infections and Recovery.

Susceptible: A susceptible population contributes to an epidemic.  If there is poor nutrition, bad environmental factors or genetic predispositions, people are more likely to get sick.  Along the same lines, cultural environment contributes to the spread of ideas.  A great idea is one whose time has come.

Vaccines, anti-poverty programs and antivirus software are all examples of steps taken to limit susceptible populations.

Infectious: An infectious population transmits the disease.  The degree to which it does so depends on both the nature of the disease and the structure of interactions in the population.  For example, the Ebola virus is highly contagious, but has mainly been limited to isolated areas so epidemics have never spread very far.

Isolating the affected population and limiting the contagion through good sanitary conditions or medicine are both good strategies to limit infectiousness.

Recovery: Eventually, people get better or they die.  When the recovered population begins to grow, the epidemic starts dying out.

The SIR model assumes that epidemics have a life-cycle.  First the conditions for an epidemic set the stage and then people get infected.  If the infection rate is above one, meaning that people get infected faster than they recover, a tipping point is reached and the epidemic grows, sometimes explosively.

Eventually, the population starts to recover and the epidemic ends. However, that can take a while.  The Black Plague epidemic lasted for decades.

The Tipping Point

Malcom Gladwell popularized the notion of applying the principles of epidemics to the spread of ideas in his book The Tipping Point.  Gladwell has his own three rules for epidemics:

The Power of Context: Similar to susceptibility in the SIR model, Gladwell gives some examples how environment plays a role in spreading ideas.  For instance, he cites the role of cracking down on smaller crimes as a way to prevent bigger ones.

The Stickiness Factor: Just like some diseases are more contagious than others, some ideas hold greater sway over people.

The Power of the Few: Probably the most memorable part of Gladwell’s book is his taxonomy of influential people.  For instance, “Mavens” are masters of information, “Connectors” know a lot of people and “Salespeople” are very powerful communicators.

Although popular, Gladwell’s book has come under some heavy criticism, notably from network theory pioneer, Duncan Watts and economist Steven Levitt.

Epidemics in a Networked World


One of the problems with the SIR model is that it doesn’t take into account the structure of populations.  However, we know that the make up of a society is important for individual interactions.

Unlike Ebola, AIDS was concentrated in cities and quickly spread to a global pandemic.  In the US, people on the coasts are more likely to share ideas with each other than they are with people in the center of the country.  Increasingly the connections which spread ideas are not geographical.

An important facet of the structure of any network is that there are not only hubs and clusters, but ways to go around them.  We have shortcuts that let us get from point to point more quickly.  It is the fact that clusters mix in unpredictably ways that makes social networks work the way that they do. (See here for more about the forces that drive social networks).

The Power of the Many

Seen in the light of network structure, Gladwell’s “Power of the Few” concept begins to break down.  Why focus exclusively on convincing a few influential people when there are so many people around them? After all, influential people are connected to many others that may be more open and easier to convince.

In effect, starting an epidemic is similar to a broadcast search. You are better off casting your net as widely as possible and reaching influential people as well as less influential ones.  (See this article for more about broadcast and directed network searches)

Some paths will fail, but the more paths you initiate, the more likely that your idea will infect those who are susceptible to it.  Just like delays at any airport can affect large hubs, influence can originate anywhere in social networks.

Ideas That Spread Themselves

It has long been known that people are influenced by others around them.  Solomon Asch conducted experiments in the 1950’s that showed that people will give answers that they know to be false if every other person in their group gives the wrong answer.  The majority doesn’t just rule, it converts.

Viral ideas are the holy grail of marketing.  Why spend money on huge advertising campaigns when you can get people to spread your ideas for free?  Unfortunately, it is very hard to get things to go viral and nearly impossible to do so with any predictability or consistency.

So you wouldn’t want to risk a major product launch on the slim chance that you might save your advertising budget; there’s too much at stake.  Businesses don’t become successful by saving on marketing, they become successful by selling products.

In order for ideas to spread, you have to not only get people to believe in them, but you need a majority of people to believe in them (or at least a local majority).

That’s the problem with Gladwell’s view.  He effectively assumes that the “influentials” that make up the “Power of the Few,” will be easier to convince than the masses.  Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, they spread through interactions.  By focusing on just one element he excludes important opportunities.

Three Conditions for a Viral Idea

Susceptibility: Either the idea has to be very powerful or people who are predisposed need to come in contact with it. A great idea is one whose time has come!

This has been my experience in the media business.  I’ve seen the same product launched the same way in different markets with much different results.  A good product always does well eventually, but sometimes it can be an instant hit, and sometimes it takes a while.

Connectedness: The people who believe in the idea have to be able to interact with others.  Even the powerful Ebola virus dies out in the African Jungle.  Those infected are too far away from population centers to create a widespread epidemic.

Practically, this means you shouldn’t choose a target that is too broad, but also that demographic targeting can be misleading. For instance a young target group doesn’t mean anything unless they are young people who connect with each other.

Majority: Even healthy people can get sick in an epidemic and even skeptical people can be influenced by an idea that permeates their local environment.

Because clusters in a network are connected, they influence each other.   It really isn’t all that important which people are influenced initially.  One very active cluster can percolate through the entire network.  The cluster doesn’t have to be central, just connected strongly enough to allow for interaction.

A majority doesn’t just rule, it convinces. A campaign must be big enough and sustained enough to build a majority in a local network. Once a local network cluster is self sustaining, they can spread the word.

A good example is Facebook, which was first limited to Harvard, then limited to university students and only then was able to conquer the world. If they started out as a social network for the general public, they probably wouldn’t have gained the momentum they needed.

Practical Marketing Implications

Through combining insights from network theory with the SIR model of epidemics, some practical steps can be taken to improve marketing campaigns.

Mass Media: Reaching a lot of people cheaply is the best way to reach the specific people you need.  Which would you rather have, a client meeting or a presentation at a conference?  At the conference, you will not only reach your prospect but also be able to influence others who can affect her decision.

Don’t Over-Target: Social Search research shows that combining a few general targeting parameters is enough for a message to reach its intended objective.  Laser like focus can be less efficient and you lose the chance to reach people who can influence the target.  You should build your target to suit your budget, but there’s no reason to exclude people if you don’t have to.

Encourage Word-of-Mouth: Social Media strategies are a great way to extend a marketing campaign, but not a replacement.  To get the maximum effect, integration with Mass Media and other marketing communication is crucial.

Duncan Watts calls this idea “Big Seed Marketing.” (For a fuller explanation, see this Fast Company article.)

The new socially networked world offers great opportunities to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of conventional marketing campaigns.  However, the old standards of a powerful idea, efficient buying and good integration live on.

– Greg

47 Responses leave one →
  1. November 9, 2009

    Great post! Having just read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, the virus analogy hit home.

    You mention that AIDS was concentrated in cities which allowed it to spread, however initially, AIDS was much like Ebola and concentrated in the jungles of Africa. The reason AIDS was able to move out of the jungles was the The Kinshasa Highway (aka AIDS Highway). A combination of infected prostitutes and truck drivers allowed the virus to spread from the jungles to the cities.

    Just like highway was the medium that allowed the virus to spread, technology is the medium that allows ideas to spread. Whether it is Twitter, the fax machine, or the telegraph, technology always seems to be one of the key factors in allowing new ideas to spread. Without a means of sharing ideas, they will have a much harder time ever spreading to a mass audience, no matter how sticky they are.

  2. November 9, 2009


    Thanks for your input.

    Just to clarify, as best as anyone can tell, AIDS “patient zero” was a flight attendant (I think he was French Canadian, but I’m not sure). Moreover, trucks and prostitutes are indicative of access to population centers. Ebola outbreaks to date have been in very remote villages.

    – Greg

  3. November 9, 2009

    Another great post Greg!
    Useful to know some of the reasons why ideas spread and go viral. But I do find myself wondering just how similar the spread of infectious diseases is, to the spread of an idea? Obviously, as discussed here and in the supporting articles, there are similarities. But in any such case, sometimes there are some important differences which could affect the outcome in ways that we are not yet seeing.
    Okay – you’re all asking for an example and I’ll try this on for size: Infectious diseases can be spread by various interactions between people (air-borne viruses, exchanges of bodily fluids, etc.). Obviously not the same for ideas: Word of Mouth is the best way to go viral (or word of personal contact like email). Is this literally the same as breathing on someone? You don’t have to be physically close to someone to share an email. I know I’m grasping here, but intuitively, there seems a danger in using a metaphor without fully understanding it. Anyone else care to add to this?
    By way of illutration, I came across a neat little story on Slashdot the other day, and covered it in my blog. It’s a reflection on what makes content “Royal” – the name I give to information which gets people to link to it. Or, in other words, go viral with it. It’s a neat little story about an “analog blogger”

  4. T A Balasubramanian permalink
    November 9, 2009

    “In order for ideas to spread, you have to not only get people to believe in them, but you need a majority of people to believe in them (or at least a local majority).”


    I was wondering: isn’t this also called ‘fanaticism’? Of course, in a different sense. Most religions are ‘programmed’ to grow this way by a cult leader or a guru. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what great branding does, too. Just look at the legions of Harley Davidson believers!

  5. November 9, 2009


    Great blog post on It makes a very good point about how people get too caught up in technology.

    One thing in particular that drives me nuts on this subject is It has great content and fantastic technology (probably the best on the web). Why can’t they update their home page more frequently than every few hours? It should be updated every few minutes! They clearly have the capability to do it, but don’t for some reason.

    As to your point about the similarity of diseases and ideas, I think like most analogies it holds if you don’t try to take it too far. There are important differences. For instance very infectious diseases that kill too fast don’t spread far. There is no analogue for that with ideas.

    However, I do think many of the concepts do apply and it’s a good place to start.

    – Greg

  6. November 9, 2009

    I think you do make a good point. It’s amazing what religious cults can get themselves to believe locally through mutual reinforcement while to an outsider they ideas seem downright nutty (and usually are).

    – Greg

  7. November 10, 2009

    Great post

  8. November 11, 2009

    Hi Greg –
    I work with and we are trying to get in contact with you…could you possibly shoot me an email? Thanks,


  9. caroline permalink
    November 14, 2009

    I love your articles – really create opportunities to create. In Kenya we are newbiees at the game and stuff like this is really usefull.


  10. November 14, 2009


    Thanks. I’m glad it’s helpful:-)

    – Greg

  11. November 28, 2009

    Great insight!!!!I have a new product that came from an idea….And boy is it hard to get it out there and make it infectious like a disease. I Love reading these articles and getting to know so many people.

  12. November 28, 2009


    Thanks. That’s high praise indeed.

    – Greg

  13. Chaitra permalink
    November 28, 2009

    Great insights. Can u share an idea in technology world that has used this principles. I would love to hear your insights.

  14. November 28, 2009


    I’m not sure about tech, but consumer brands such as P&G and Miller beer have used them, apparently with impressive results.

    – Greg

  15. November 30, 2009

    Great to have a recap on The Tipping Point!

    Personally; I don’t see the need for differentiating between the few and the many. If the idea is sticky and it has potential for viral spreading, it really doesn’t matter if starts with a Connector, Maven or Communicator – it will spread across and reach all profiles anyway – roughly.

    When I use quizzes for marketing purposes; they tend to spread – the only diffence is the speed, which often is determined by topic rather than the profile of the visitor.

    Great post!

  16. November 30, 2009


    I think you’re right, there’s no substitute for a great idea.

    Although, often a great idea can be a function of time and place (like in the Mendel example ). I have seen the same product launch in different markets with demonstrably different results. A good idea will always win out in the end, but sometimes it takes a bit more time and effort.

    – Greg

  17. December 5, 2009

    A poor attempt to explain my poor manners: I just found your comment with a link to our site and wanted to thank you. I guess I had unchecked the email notifications.
    Keep on posting – your blog is one of the highlights of my morning cuppa!

  18. Randy Harrison permalink
    December 5, 2009

    Greg. I completely agree… this is not new stuff. Viral marketing has been going on for a long time. Promotions of all kinds, kinds that drive the kind of word of mouth where people pass it along is what it is all about. With this in mind, two things I would add to the mix are: 1. positioning, or making sure to connect all the dots for the end user, and 2. providing a reason, an incentive or motor to spread it around. In other words, ask people, give them the idea to spread the word, and if you can, offer them something in return to do so… then the rest is, shall we say, out of our hands. Some seeds will take, others may not. The trick is as you note to keep an open net with minimal limitations because you can never tell who or where it will take.

  19. December 5, 2009


    Thanks for sharing your insight.

    – Greg

  20. December 5, 2009


    Really enjoyed your insight. As a pioneer receiving many arrows in the vest for being so – I don’t care . . . My work is not going away and will only grow, as non-conformist see new light in a different perspective.


  21. December 5, 2009

    Barbie Dae,

    Thanks. Have a nice weekend.

    – Greg

  22. Jyoti permalink
    December 12, 2009

    Hi Greg,

    Really a great post.

    Would like to share some experiences. I am a bio-science student turned into management post graduate; pursuing a career into IT pre-sales and Sales. Was much incfluenced and impresed by George Gregor Mendel, the father of Genetics and Genetics was one of my favorite subjects. Let me keep this apart..

    Had taken up an e-mail campaign for one of the Defect Management Tool (RADAR). The response was so poor as I kept on targetting the niche audiance in the market, viz . Quality Heads, Project Managers and Delivery Heads. After reading the sentence “Why focus exclusively on convincing a few influential people when there are so many people around them? “, realized how important is “reaching as many people as possible”.

    Thanks Greg for this article. If you could share the links / articles where P&G and Miller beer stories of implementing this strategy would be great. May be I can get some tips on how to improve the marketing skills and strategies!! 🙂


  23. December 12, 2009


    Thanks for your comment.

    You can try this article in Fast company:,5

    Also a Google search for “Big Seed Marketing” should yield some results.

    – Greg

  24. December 13, 2009


    A timely post. I’m in early stage development of my business, Leap Greetings. I am breaking new ground in a 100 year old industry that has proven to be very set in their ways. I suppose the best thing to happen to most products or ideas is have them blow up because of the viral effect. However, statistically that’s a very small number. I like your thought process and targeting the masses to reach the few makes a great deal of sense to me. My prime audience is significant but, through years of conditioning is often averse to my product. For my company viral marketing is likely the most effective method to garner attention, interest and participation. Thanks.

  25. December 13, 2009


    Thanks. Good luck with your new business.

    – Greg

  26. December 20, 2009

    Hi Greg,
    Your posts do serve to fire up some lazy brain cells that decide to take the afternoon off in my head 🙂

    I like the whole epidemic analogy and will surely run with it sooner than later.
    taking this from your article …”Seen in the light of network structure, Gladwell’s “Power of the Few” concept begins to break down. Why focus exclusively on convincing a few influential people when there are so many people around them? After all, influential people are connected to many others that may be more open and easier to convince.”….

    I have to say that I subscribe to Gladwell’s Power of Few. It’s exactly what Targeted Digital marketing is aiming at, in my understanding… versus what mass media and traditional advertising tries to do. Traditional (ok and Digital Spam or mass emails) aim to “find” the few in the network by spending vast amounts of money.

    Targeted, or Gladwell’s power of few, already starts off by Planning to attract (attack?) the powerful ones, or the influencer and let them carry the “virus payload”.

    It seems the networks firewalls always have a “port open” to these trusted influencers…versus letting just an infected newbie to try and spread the disease within the network.

    For example I’ve been doing Augmented Reality and extolling it’s virtues since 2005! and yes a great idea is an idea whose time has come is a good way of saying it, but I would tend to believe more that I did not infect an “influencer” or one amongst the “powerful few” .. much like Apple infected Guy Kawasaki – to spread the idea.

    – just another way of seeing it I guess.

  27. December 20, 2009


    I think there’s a lot of truth to what you say. However, there’s also an efficiency question.

    To take your Guy Kawasaki example, he was an employee. Hiring people is quite expensive, as is taking client’s to dinner, holding events, etc. While all of these things are a good idea, even necessary, they can be extremely inefficient.

    A good counter example is pet food, which is advertised almost exclusively on TV. Of course, targeting pet stores and veterinary clinics would be more targeted, but would it actually be more efficient? How often would you be able to reach people? How much would it cost to have premium placement in every pet store.

    The answer is that it’s probably much more efficient to advertise on TV and reach everybody than to try to weed out those who aren’t pet owners or potential pet owners, which is what most pet foods do even though they are only really interested in about 5% of the audience they’re reaching.

    Targeting, while useful, isn’t the whole story.

    – Greg

  28. January 14, 2010

    Another thought provoking interesting post Greg. My first thought on reading your piece and reviewing the linked discussion was the concept of “the meme”.
    The UKs preeminent biologist and leading Darwinian exponent Professor Richard Dawkins first introduced the term “meme” in his pop-science classic “The Selfish Gene” which he described as “a set of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena”.

    Dawkins describes “memes” as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures in exactly the same way genes do through the process of natural selection.

    He used a series of wide ranging examples to illustrate his case from hip hop youth cultures phenomena of wearing baseball caps backwards (!) to the spread and instilling of religious practices and ideology, a theme he returned to with gusto in his recent and highly recommended publication “The God Delusion.”

    Just like genes, Dawkins argues, memes evolve by “cultural” natural selection through variation, mutation and competition. Memes which mutate and replicate the most effectively tend to survive and spread. The success of the spread of early Christians in Europe owed much to their strategy of “hijacking” pagan rites and rituals and mutating them to support the proliferation of Christian ideology. Machiavelli used several examples of successful political and colonial “memes” which bolstered the hegemony of the Medici’s in Medieval Italy in his seminal work “The Prince” .

    “Meme theory” seems to have as much if not more to say as an explanation for how ideas spread, mutate and decline as any of the recent models postulated.

  29. January 14, 2010


    Thanks for introducing an interesting topic. I’m posting about memes as replicators on Sunday.

    – Greg

  30. Herdmeister permalink
    January 28, 2010

    Nice work but….

    Sorry to be the one to pour cold water on this, but much contemporary behavioural science would disagree with the pov about diffusion and propagations of ideas and behaviour that you articulate so well.

    i. the epidemiology metaphor is not as strong for human behaviour and ideas as is widely suggested: most ideas and behaviours that spead through populations are not really “contagious” or “sticky” (except in retrospect): most of the time there is little to choose between option a. and option b. (and all the other options).
    ii. most social networks are not fixed and finite in the way you suggest (except in isolated and primitive societies). For most of us, the social networks in which we are embedded are shifting and fluid. Apart from anything else as soon as there is interaction and influence, the structure is changed so it’s hard to talk of “the network” in that sense.
    iii. That said, it is possible to identify the underlying kind of structure available and interestingly it appears that a better default for the underlying structure might be 1. effectively random i.e. multi-dimensional and mutual (we see this a lot in popular culture ideas and fashions) or 2. clumped or small-world (e.g. in for example teen binge drinking – it’s an activity that brings and keeps a group together). The hub and spoke structure that e.g. Gladwell’s model typifies is much rarer in reality than you might think – not a fiction, but certainly not the best default setting.
    iv. One of the big conceptual challenges is to recognise that the ideas we have about social networks are “selfish”: we think of networks as TV networks – channels down which ideas (e.g. our ideas) and behaviours and diseases flow or can be propagated. It’s far more accurate and useful to see them more as eco-systems in which most of the propagation of these kind of items is mutual, messy and driven by the people in the system interacting with and emulating each other.

    It’s a shame, I know, because the picture you paint is much more straight forward and apparently primed for those of us into social network marketing to do our thing and create “virals” (Ugh! “viral” is a way of describing the outcome (spreading far) not the thing that spreads or the mechanism by which it spreads.

    Oh, and you might wonder why most of our attempts to spread stuff doesn’t end up being that successful – not for lack of effort or lack of stickiness or indeed for not identifying the (often) self-proclaimed “influentials: it’s just that the real nature of social networks – a swirling social soup – is different from the model you describe.

    More on my blog including this award winning article here

    Interested to see what you think

  31. January 28, 2010


    I’ve read the literature thoroughly and I not only disagree, but the “Big Seed Marketing” model I describe comes from Duncan Watts, who pioneered social network theory (he wrote the seminal paper).

    I know there are a lot of cranks out there, which is why I always try to read the primary sources. It’s a shame, I know, because they tend to have long formulas with Greek letters. Alas…

    – Greg

  32. April 3, 2010


    The phrase “going viral” has much more to do with how quickly and wide ideas spread than it does with how they actually spread. Epidemiology is a poor model for how ideas spread and you would be better off getting your head out of the books and theories and paying attention to how ideas spread in your real life amongst your friends. Unless you want to say that broadcasting and mass media are like a disease in which case I would tend to agree that epidemiology is a good analogy.

    An example of how your analysis breaks in the real world: We can choose which ideas appeal to us and which ideas we spread around our network. We can even choose to totally ignore ideas that the majority believes. How does this translate to epidemiology? Can we choose which viruses affect us?

    Your theories about influence are also flawed. True that influence can start anywhere in a network, but whether or not that influence will achieve anything is questionable. I can convince almost every employee in a company that we should have a four day work week but if the CEO and stockholders say “No” we are still working Fridays. Highly targeted messages work. Knowing who to target is becoming increasingly important as we move away from the broadcast model and toward a more relationship based model. I would imagine that when you try to sell your services you don’t request a meeting with the whole company. I bet you ask to meet directly with the person that can make the buying decision.

    Like most quickly changing and complex systems (weather for example) the best tools we have for analysis are not primary sources and math theories. The best tools we have are our 5 senses and our feelings. Look out the window and decide whether or not to take the umbrella. This is why certain creative people highly tuned into their feelings and those around them can successfully create viral ideas over and over again. Think musicians and film directors.

    “Some paths will fail, but the more paths you initiate, the more likely that your idea will infect those who are susceptible to it.”

    Wrong. It depends way more on the quality of the idea and your objective. I can take out a TV ad for finding friends, but it won’t get me many quality friends. Because most people don’t want to make friends by being persuaded by a TV ad. How about the more sincere and useful your idea is the more likely it is to “infect” people? A great idea passed to one highly influential person has way more chance of spreading than a crappy idea broadcast to millions.

    Many people are very tired of all the messages being broadcast AT them in what is basically a one-way self-centered “conversation” with an agenda. Especially when there are now so many opportunities for real two-way conversations.

    And your case studies do not jive with your practical advice. You use Facebook as an example. Directly below the Facebook example you state:

    “Mass Media: Reaching a lot of people cheaply is the best way to reach the specific people you need. ” Has Facebook ever used mass media to reach the specific people they need? Facebook as a brand name has eclipsed Amazon, Walmart, Netflix and even Google as the foremost brand name in web searches from U.S. users, according to research from Hitwise. Google, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon, and eBay are all household names and I don’t remember these names being spread using mass media.

    You state that “social Media strategies are a great way to extend a marketing campaign, but not a replacement. ” In the relationship based era that should be turned around to say that a marketing campaign is a possible way to extend the relationships you are building with your customers, but not a replacement for real conversations happening on social media.

    By focusing on primary sources and too much theory you are missing the big picture about how we operate as humans and that we are moving from a broadcast model to a relationship based model. The broadcasting model worked best when it was the only option for companies to communicate with customers. There are better options for spreading ideas these days and surely Gregor Mendel would not go unnoticed for 10 years had his findings been made in 2009.

  33. April 3, 2010


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Although you might want to actually learn something about network theory, look at actual campaign data and run some real life brands before you judge.

    It’s all fine and well to pick out a few rare exceptions like Google, but when you actually have to build a business, reach consumers and manage a multi-million dollar budget, the world looks differently.

    – Greg

  34. April 6, 2010


    I’ve worked directly for marketing teams promoting international brands and have also studied network theory (and its more generalized form of graph theory). I wouldn’t call myself an expert in either, but have enough real life experience to call it like I see it and to defend my points with real world examples without having to resort to questioning your qualifications.

    Epidemology is a bad analogy for how ideas spread virally for several reasons which I’ve already made a strong case for in my previous comment and I question whether network theory is even the right discipline to be studying in the first place if you want ideas to go viral.

    Duncan Watts and his “Big Seed Marketing” theory still only got him less than 50k hits total when he put it into practice. Hardly viral by his own admission. Compare that with created by my company. We tossed the network theories aside, and focused instead on creating a tool we and our friends would find entertaining. Result: we get way more hits than 100k. Every single day. Total mass media spend: zero.

    I certainly wouldn’t use either my marketing experience or my knowledge of network theory when building a circle of friends. And if I did I’d be pretty damn scared of the impact it would have on my reputation if they learned I was approaching my friendships like a marketing campaign or a science experiment.

    What I was trying to suggest in my comment above is, as we leave the broadcast era and enter the relationship era, we are going to need to rely a lot more on the skills we’d use to build a circle of friends in order to build the brands of the future. Making new friends, learning to dance, being a great kisser: there are just some things in life in which your own 5 senses and your feelings will give you way better information than a thousand great books and theories.

    Google, Starbucks, eBay, Facebook, and Amazon aren’t the rare exceptions. They are the new global brands created in the past decade or two. Can you name new global brands as big as those above that used primarily mass media to build their brand? Per the suggestions in your article? I’m not saying there aren’t any and I’m curious to learn from your experience. Because I do in fact have to build businesses, reach consumers and manage multi-million dollar budgets and I’d be sincerely willing to learn from the example of the new brands that have done it differently than Google and the others.

  35. April 6, 2010


    Brands built by mass media? Let’s see…Nike, Dove, Apple, Tide, Coca Cola, Dominoes, Doritos, Wal-Mart Toyota, Carrefour, Honda, Tesco, Sony, Vodaphone, O2, etc.

    Beyond that, there is the fact that it is very hard to see significant awareness benefit from digital campaigns, which is why Digital spend has been so low. Advertisers have been testing digital for over a decade, but it keeps coming up short (except for search).

    Finally, The Big Seed marketing campaigns you mentioned we pilot campaigns, so they were supposed to be small. The number of impressions wasn’t as significant as the fact that using social media they were able to double the reach of the traditional campaign.

    – Greg

  36. April 6, 2010

    I got notification of new comments on this post, and did not realize that I had commented earlier. I have to agree more with Todd, he does mention in his last line about “new” brands. Coke …Nike..Tide etc are old brands that had to rely on the traditional way of mass-media.

    I’m no-where near as experienced as both of you, so will only offer one Brand that has done it the non traditional way and is a *new* brand (imho) – Dell Computers.

    And just as paraphrasing in the article – A good idea is an idea who’s time has come – this could then be applied to Gregor Mendels case as in the article.

    Also as Todd made an observation – had he tweeted his idea in 2009 – it could have gone viral pretty fast.

    It’s a new age .. and many practices need to be re-examined.
    From my industry – 3D movie making is completely killing what Cinematographer’s learnt in 2D film school ( rack focus, depth-of-field etc) … in education, Rote learning is being replaced with technology that helps students know how to “find an answer in context” and not “memorize” answers…

    I’d suspect this is applicable to marketing and media “platforms” too.
    .-= Clyde´s last blog ..Is Shooting 3D movies as complex as Open heart Surgery? =-.

  37. April 6, 2010


    There are still newer brands such as Red Bull, i-Pod, etc.

    Besides, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that digital brands have used a lot of digital media (Starbucks does actually use a fair amount of mass media, especially radio and outdoor).

    – Greg

  38. April 6, 2010


    Please read a little more carefully. I specified both NEW brands, and in the past two decades. I.e. since the time when network theory and digital media became applicable to the building of a non-established brand names.

    Nike, Dove, Apple, Tide, Coca Cola, Doritos, Toyota, Honda: I remember them from when I was a child. The popularity of the internet was still 20 years in the future.

    Dominoes, Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Tesco: 1960s and before.

    O2 and Vodafone might be good examples but interesting that due to the importance of mobile phone technology in our daily lives even the brands that do almost no advertising are still household names. To be fair, same could be said for Google.

    I’m still convinced that times have changed. More and bigger new household brand names were built using either no traditional mass media or far less than the brand names of the previous generation. The fact that with no advertising and within a short few years Facebook became a bigger brand name than Wal-Mart says a lot about the new rules.

    Finally, digital spend is low? Where then did Google get all their money?

    @Clyde, yes Dell could be a good example. Thank you. For my information, do you remember the types of adverts that made you aware of Dell? I personally heard of Dell through word of mouth so I don’t remember a lot of ads. Interestingly enough, Dell was one of the earliest and most successful supporters of social media.

  39. April 6, 2010


    Digital is about 14% of global media spend, which puts it far behind both print and TV. Moreover, as impressive and dominant as Google is, it’s revenues are only $23 billion, less than either Disney or Time Warner. Finally, Google is exceptional and no other digital media company even comes close.

    So yes, if you compare it with traditional media, digital media earns far less in revenues and doesn’t even figure in when it comes to profits (most digital media companies lose money).

    btw. Dell wasn’t a big media spender until after they became a major corporation. Starbucks, however was as was E-trade, pretty much all mobile telephone brands. The Macintosh had a particularly famous Super Bowl launch. Apple continues to launch new brands with significant media spend, etc.

    Finally, there are the realities of campaign performance and digital simply does not fill many briefs, if it did, more advertisers would be willing to put more of their budgets there. Right now, they’re not.

    – Greg

  40. April 6, 2010

    Actually, i don’t remember Dell ads. I only came to know about their success of using Twitter to sell products… via other people’s tweets 🙂

    What would be interesting is to break down the “products” of older established brands such as Apple and now Pepsi and see if the tide is indeed turning or not to digital and social media.

    For instance it would be interesting to know how much Apple spent on traditional advertising of the IPAD, and is there a way to measure that in sales figures …or were the runaway sales that happened a direct result of social awareness and the “viral” effects of tweets, myspace and FB.

    Also why did Pepsi elect to spend 20 million (not sure of exact figure) on a Social media campaign… instead of the traditional SuperBowl that was done for years on end.

    In today’s day of technology, “media” trends should be measured in shorter time-frames than was previously done.
    It does look like even traditional established brands are moving toward social networks and using Social Media platforms rather than TV, and print.
    .-= Clyde´s last blog ..Is Shooting 3D movies as complex as Open heart Surgery? =-.

  41. April 6, 2010


    You’ve moved from discussing how to best spread ideas to comparing revenues.

    Anyway, a 14% share of total global media spend is high, especially if we consider the period over which it was gained. And how far behind TV and radio is digital media exactly? A more interesting question than “who is biggest” would be how the percentages have been changing year over year and how quickly that gap is closing. Could you share your sources with us?

    And most digital media companies I know of make a lot of money. Any numbers to support your claim that most lose money?

    Agreed that Google is smaller than traditional media conglomerates that have been around for 90 odd years. I don’t know though how to tie that into your original recommendations or if it is even a useful comparison.

    You say that advertisers are not willing to put more of their budgets into digital but past history and most forecasts show double digit growth for digital spend. People are spending more and more time online and the ad dollars will catch up.

    Yes, Apple is a good example of spreading ideas using traditional mass media. I don’t know the E-Trade marketing story. Any ideas where I could learn more?

  42. April 6, 2010


    The tide is not turning. What is really amazing is how little most traditional media has been impacted. Radio, TV, Magazines and outdoor have basically the same share of the advertising market that they did fifteen years ago. The main impact has been in newspapers (which were heavily dependent on classified advertising) and direct response such as telemarketing and direct mail.

    This might change in the future as web video becomes more popular (although now there is a dearth of audience data, so hasn’t made much progress) and the i-Pad.

    Also, just for the record, Pepsi is not spending $20 million on social media. They are spending $20 million on a charity campaign and almost nothing on social media. TV continues to be their main media vehicle (besides, the math doesn’t work – a Super bowl ad costs about $2.5 million). Doritos, which is also a Pepsi brand, had multiple placements in the Super bowl.

    So Pepsi as a company was actually one of the biggest advertisers in the 2010 super bowl.

    – Greg

  43. April 6, 2010


    Unfortunately, the only way to know to learn what kind of campaigns are effective is to actually look at campaign data and measure the effect on awareness and sales. That data is proprietary and confidential.

    Just curious, which digital media companies do you think make money? Youtube, Facebook, Myspace,, Friendster, etc all lose money. Very few make money and literally thousands fail every year.

    I don’t have any actual data (again proprietary), but talk to a few VC’s and they will tell you that very few digital properties are profitable or even cash flow positive (and I’ve talked to a lot of VCs)

    – Greg

  44. April 7, 2010


    I didn’t ask for proprietary campaign data, just what the percentage of global spend is for TV and radio over time and what your sources are.

    Here is a bigger list of digital media companies that make money: Sohu, Baidu, Akamai, Facebook (according to my latest discussions with them), eBay, Amazon, Playfish, Yahoo, Craigslist (millions of revenue per employee),, Bloomberg, etc.

    Since my list is bigger I guess that proves most digital media companies make money?

    BTW, all data publicly available at and many other sources.

    I’m not sure what “a lot” of VCs is but I talk to VCs too. I hear of a lot of investing n digital media. Where do you think all the money comes from that the digital media companies are supposedly losing?

    In any case, what does all this prove concerning how ideas spread? People are spending more and more time on the internet which means that is where ideas will increasingly spread and where advertisers will increasingly spend.

  45. April 7, 2010


    All I can tell you is that I have quite a bit of experience in this area, have run major operations in both traditional and online media and have been paid to consult for major corporations and have enjoyed access to proprietary data.

    The opinions on this site are based on experience and expertise built up over five different countries and two decades. Accept them or not. This is not a debating club.

    If you honestly want information about ad spends, the most commonly source is here

    Again, I apologize, but I really do have better things to do.

    – Greg

  46. November 9, 2010

    1. I do remember reading about a spate of suicides in young men. A charismatic lad apparently could not stand the day to day pressures, so he killed himself. Some of his friends realised that suicide was a realistic way out and followed suit. Does the idea “Killing myself is a way out of my pain” constitute an ideological example you were looking for?
    2. The evolution and spread of ideas has a lot in common with the evolution and spread of organisms. It is more than an analogy. Ideological evolution is not Darwinian, it is not gene (or meme based) or species based. I have written some stuff on this. at

  47. November 9, 2010

    Interesting points. Thanks for sharing, Dick!

    – Greg

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