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Why TV Won’t Die: The Power of Big Seed Marketing

2010 September 8

TV is dead.  Push marketing is dead.  Long live the conversation!

You hear that a lot from social media advocates, despite all evidence to the contrary.  TV viewership remains at or near all time highs, media companies are profitable and social media remains a very small part of the overall picture.

“That’s fine in practice, but does it work in theory?” some might say, “there are powerful social forces gathering which will obliterate conventional media practices.”

And you would be wrong.  Everything we know about how ideas travel through networks points to mass media broadcasting remaining dominant.

The Influential Myth

There is a very popular myth about certain people called “Influentials” who make up a sort of marketing holy grail.  Supposedly, you can use these people to market to the masses very much as pictured in the diagram below:

You see, a lot of people listen to what these folks say and trust them much more than they do TV ads.  So, instead of wasting money on expensive mass media campaigns, you can just recruit these influential people and they will do all the work for you.  You will get many for the price of just a few.

Sounds great, unless of course you think about it for more than 30 seconds.  How do you find these people?  How do you evaluate their influence and convince them to speak on your behalf?  You could, of course, just get someone famous, but then how would that be different than broadcasting?

Different Kinds of Influence

Let’s take the very simple model below taken from the orgnet web site.  In this network, who is influential?

Jane might be in a position of power, but only connects with the rest of the network through Heather and Ike, who are gatekeepers.  Diane has the most connections, but is distant from many people.  Fernando and Garth aren’t as well connected as Diane, but are close to just about everyone.

In truth, everybody in the network is a potential influencer.  There is no reason that Carol or Andre or Beverly or Ed, if sufficiently motivated, couldn’t spread an idea.  Moreover, they almost surely do from time to time, on one subject or another.  Should they be ignored?

Solomon Asch and The Influence of Majorities

Look at the picture below.  Which of the lines on the right is the same length as the line on the left?
What if I told you it was A?  Would you believe me?

How about if you were in a room with ten other people and you were the only one who didn’t think it was A?

This question was explored by experiments performed by Solomon Asch in the 1950’s.  They showed that when confronted with a majority opinion, people would give answers which they knew to be wrong.  The majority not only rules, it influences.

Again, the idea that a few people discretely influence the masses quickly breaks down.  What really influences us are the “local networks” where we spend most of our time (i.e. work, school, neighborhood, place of worship, etc.).

A Receptivity Model

Of course, influence isn’t the only thing that is important.  Some people are just more receptive to an idea than others.  If you can find them, they will be pretty easy to convince and will help you to convince others, as in this model inspired by the Asch experiments:

In this example, we have three overlapping networks made up of people with varying receptivity to an idea.  If you manage to reach someone with 0% resistance to an idea, they will be immediately convinced.  However, most of the people will need others in the group to go along before they take the plunge.

Here, we can identify the ideal target – the one in the red circle.  If we can get to her, that will be enough to convince her friend with 10% resistance next to her and a chain reaction will ensue where the whole network comes along.  Because that network is also linked to people in other networks with 0% resistance, our idea soon spreads virally across all three networks.

However, even in this overly simple example it should be obvious how unrealistic this is.  We would not only have to identify who is receptive to our idea, but what their relationship is to other receptive people. The critical target in the red circle is only special because of its position in the network, not due to any individual merit.

In reality it’s most efficient to reach a lot of people cheaply.    Conventional targeting techniques are quite good at identifying masses of receptive people.  Many  say that this is wasteful, and it is, but everything comes down to price and mass media, especially TV, are champion price performers.

Big Seed Marketing

When it comes to social networks, there is no greater authority than Duncan Watts.  Unlike many false gurus, he has not only has thought seriously about the issues, but co-wrote the seminal network theory paper back in 1998.  Since then, he has performed a wealth of further research on what drives networks.

He’s advocating a very practical approach that he calls Big Seed Marketing.   He points out that since even a network theory ace like him can’t pinpoint where influence lies, it makes sense for marketers to reach a lot of people through mass media, and then do what they can to enable consumers to pass the message along.

In other words, not only will mass media continue to thrive, it is essential if you are going to create social media campaigns that actually work consistently. This, of course, turns the social media argument on its head.

A Big Seed Orgy

A prime example of how Big Seed Marketing can be put to  is O2’s Unlimtied Orgy of  Fun, which combined a TV intensive brand with social media and event marketing.

Each week, students at different universities were given a challenge on YouTube, such as get as many people in one picture as possible.  Winners announced on a dedicated Facebook page would get prizes and their school would move up in the rankings.  At the end of the contest, O2 threw a big party for the winning school.

The results were fantastic.  The events were mobbed, over 70,000 people became fans on facebook, the videos were watched millions of times and sales spiked.  All of this for an amazingly small budget.  However, it’s hard to see how it would be possible if TV hadn’t created a Big Seed brand in the first place.

TV is dead?  Hardly.  And that’s a good thing for social media (although not so good for the social media gurus).

– Greg

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Alex Bakun permalink
    September 8, 2010

    Hi Greg

    This piece is very easy to read though very covincing at the same time. Social networks is an extra propagation tool but hardly the only one to communicate.

    Hope you book is to be published soon (if not yet )))


  2. September 8, 2010

    Thanks Oleksiy.

    How are things back in Kiev?

    – Greg

  3. September 9, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    I came across your blog a couple of days ago, and I’ve since read and enjoyed several of your posts – wide-ranging and terrific stuff!

    You clearly like Duncan Watts. The article in Fast Company (“Is the Tipping Point Toast?”) refers to a network simulation he did that showed that the rank-and-file is far more likely to start a contagion than the Influentials. I’m hoping you’re familiar with it, because I had some thoughts on how the results were arrived at and interpreted.

    1) Everyone in Watts’ simulated network has a small probability of infecting another. If we’re talking about the communication of ideas and not the transmission of disease, shouldn’t Influentials have a higher than average probability of infecting their immediate contacts? If for no other reason than the exercise of influence holds more appeal for the socially connected than the outlying rank-and-file. Because they’re good at it as another reason.

    2) Society wide infections are likely to go through Influentials. These folks occupy the strategic positions in the network. They legitimize an idea originating from the rank-and-file and, by transmitting it and taking it up as their own, help it grow much more quickly. However, if Influentials don’t support or actively resist other’s ideas, rank-and-file ideas are more likely to die out. So give the Influentials their credit for the success of rank-and-file ideas.

    3) Is the rank-and-file equally capable of producing original ideas as the Influentials? Really? I can see the transition points when influence is shifting from one group to another (see Kuhn on scientific revolutions), but in the steady state? A rank-and-file person that starts a trend is usually, and rightly, celebrated for an excess of originality. There just ain’t a lot of those.

    4) Watts says in the article “If society is ready to embrace a trend, then almost anyone can start one — and if it isn’t then almost no one can.” This doesn’t sound a little pat? A little Gladwellian? And based on nothing more than Watts tweaking a setting in his simulation. Really, though, someone who starts a trend that society is “ready to embrace” deserves a little credit as an individual, no? It’s really, really hard!

    The marketing talk around influence and its uses is hard to stomach. But that doesn’t mean influence doesn’t exist or isn’t concentrated.

    It’s like the “African Ant Eater Ritual” scene in Can’t Buy Me Love. In that movie, Patrick Dempsey’s character is both high school rank-and-file and, for a time, an Influential. As the latter, he manages to start all kinds of trends in his network. As the former, his effect is localized and personal – he makes mistakes, he grows, he gets the girl and a happy ending. Pretty fair.



  4. September 9, 2010


    Wow! Lots of questions. I’ll do my best to answer them.

    1. The Fast Company article isn’t the best source. To really understand Watts’ research, you should read him directly. You can find his paper dealing with influentials here:

    In actuality, Influentials do have more influence, but only marginally more in most of the models that Watts ran. There are lots of reasons for this, but probably the best explanation is that for a viral cascade to happen, a chain of interactions must ensue and influentials aren’t much more likely to influence those who will influence others.

    2. It depends on your definition of “influential.” The conventional definition is those who have a lot of connections. If you define it as simply having a strategic place in the network, then influence really depends on context, which in fact, is what Watts is basically arguing.

    3. The model doesn’t deal with producing ideas, just how information travels through the network. Barabasi dealt with this in his “fitness model of networks” I wrote about it here:

    4. I don’t think that anybody is arguing that influence doesn’t exist or that it isn’t important, just that identifying it isn’t practical or cost efficient.

    I hope that covers it. Let me know if there is anything that I missed.

    And thank you for a very thoughtful comment.

    – Greg

  5. September 10, 2010

    Thanks, in turn, for the thoughtful response and the upload. I haven’t read the paper yet. Looking forward to learning the details.

  6. September 10, 2010

    Good luck (and get some aspirin – the paper is a bit difficult).

    – Greg

  7. September 10, 2010

    Why would TV die? It is the only medium in which it is possible (although quite expensive) to generate double digit reach.

    There is no way to do mass marketing without it.

    And the odds that a lot of people have seen a commercial increases receptivity to bringing it up as an ice breaker in social conversation. So it can contribute a lot to the so-called “watercooler” effect in either virtual or physical social settings.

    Instead of eliminating TV (this is not going to happen) develop solutions that capitalize on that reach by paying off all that reach with a reason to respond and a way to continue that conversation in cooperation with participants.

    In my opinion we need a better marketplace for innovation –

    Katherine Warman Kern

  8. September 10, 2010

    Good points, Katherine. Thanks for making them!

    – Greg

  9. James Sinclair permalink
    September 12, 2010

    Feels right in many ways. Seems like there are similarities in what happened to the film industry post the notion of home viewing with the arrival of video – way back when. However I can’t let go of the notion of key influencers. Just seems to logical to discount. Some people are considered an authority on a subject and their first or second hand advocacy – for it’s ownsake seems hard to beat. Uncle Jimi

  10. September 12, 2010

    Uncle Jimi,

    I think that’s right. However influence is contextual. For instance, Doctors might be very influential for baby food, not so influential for fashion. In some cases, like Doctors and other experts, targeting is very clear and lots of resources are devoted to those channels.

    It also should be mentioned that social targeting is improving and it’s a growing area with a lot of interest. Nevertheless, all of the empirical data we presently have points to conventionally targeted mass media as being by the the most effect way to get a message out.

    – Greg

  11. July 17, 2012

    Everything is changing so rapidly across the business ladscape. It is causing business owners to really wonder what to do next. Geoffrey Moore just published his latest book, Escape Velocity that deals with the frameworks of the new digital era we live in. Without frameworks you don’t know where you are going and without data and analytics to be your flashlight you might end up being the next Kodak. With that said, there is a place for social media but it hasn’t reached its full potential yet. It is still evolving and to not use it can be considered silly, but to depend on it to make a profit can also be considered a bad idea. I for one feel that currently social media is one of the tools of regular marketing but not something just unto itself yet.

  12. July 17, 2012

    Thanks Rick. I’m a big Geoffrey Moore fan but haven’t picked that one up yet. Good reminder.

    – Greg

  13. February 22, 2013

    Nice discussion. Has anything changed in 2 years? Ok, Thanks for all your hard work, Greg!

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