This is a Manifesto about spreading ideas in the 21st century. It’s a long post. But I promise you, your effort will be rewarded.
Spreading ideas is all about probability. So are creativity, leading, marketing. The thing is, you just can’t manage life. That’s to say: micromanagment is out of the question. Forget about controlling all the details. When you learn how to settle with probability then life becomes one big opportunity. Then you can become a great leader, a great creative, a great marketeer, a great spreader of ideas.
Here come the Herds
“Here we outline an alternative model of how things spread: one rooted in the contemporary behavioural sciences and which we have already successfully applied in practice. It is remarkably simple, useful in describing the spread of all kinds of behaviours, and rooted in our species’ scientifically demonstrated social – or ‘Herd’ nature.” (Dr Alex Bentley & Mark Earls)
Ideas spread through herd-like copying. It sounds like the premise of Tribes, Seth Godin’s new book. Turns out it’s the key notion in a new scientific model on how ideas spread.
In their article “Forget influentials, herd-like copying is how brands spread” Mark Earls and Dr Alex Bentley use behavioural science to explain why marketing should radically change its course if it doesn’t want to make itself completely useless over the next decade.
What does Herd-like marketing look like?
- New networks are not classic media-channels with a new shape. You can’t use networks the way you’ve used other one-way communication channels.
- Forget about the push. We can’t shove things down peoples throats anymore. Networks spread ideas because of the pull mechanism of the idea, not because of the pushing of marketeers.
- Copying is what life is all about. We’re not at all independent thinkers. We copy because it’s the safest choice we can make.
- Forget about influence, forget about persuasion. Behaviour spreads through ordinary folk rather than when it gets broadcasted by special friendships. Again: no pushing. And: everyone is a potential puller.
- Understand the tides. This will show you what is copied and how. Ride the waves, don’t swim against them.
- Mapping the landscape is impossible, understanding it isn’t. The right model of how a network looks can help you understand how to approach the network and how the copy mechanisms work.
- Use a cascade approach rather than an insurgent one. Or as the authors put it: “start lots of fires in lots of promising places.”
Apart from my skepticism towards the use of the term new – this model/behaviour has been around for ages, it simply hasn’t been captured in this particular narrative form – , Dr Alex Bentley and Mark Earls present a pretty accurate image of how marketing could and should help spread ideas in the 21st century.
Tribes and Herds, similar but not the same
The similarities as well as the differences between the ideas of Berkley and Earls on one side and the ideas of Seth Godin on the other are interesting.
Seth has been talking and writing about permission marketing for years now. He has travelled the world and was invited by the brightest minds and companies of our time to explain his ideas and to encourage people to work with them. So saying the pull is more important than the push is not that new at all in the marketing world.
Seth also talks about tribes as the main metaphor for where the real idea-spreading-action happens. They also agree on the idea that everyone belongs and wants to belong to several herds.
- Don’t follow the leader?
Yet Seth’s narrative focusses on leadership and how strong leadership is important for tribes and spreading ideas. Whereas Berkley and Earls focus on the copying mechanism and denounce the notion of followers copying behaviour of a leader.
“What most data show, however, is behaviour spreading through ordinary folk rather than ‘broadcast’ by special individuals. (…) If we view the influentials phenomenon as a special case of directed copying, then usually it is we who decide to copy an individual, creating their perceived influence in the process.” (Bentley & Earls)
Is Seth missing the point here? Not really.
- The hindsight theory
Seth talks about two important things which Earls and Berkley don’t mention. First Seth emphasizes the importance of small steps. A leader goes her own way but her influence spreads through small steps, through connection with her friends and with surrounding people who like her ideas.
Nowhere does Seth say that ideas spread because you’ve engaged with powerful people. In hindsight, these people might have proven to be a powerful catalist in the spreading of your ideas, but that’s only in hindsight. You can’t possibly know this for sure at forehand.
In fact, leaders are mostly recongised as such in hindsight as well. At the point they manifest them as leaders or are recognized as such, they were already leading for a long time. And when people become aware of their ideas and how they spread they actually aren’t copying their leader’s behaviour anymore, but the behaviour of the first-generation followers who are already copying their leader’s behaviour long before he became known as one.
This is a key notion lacking from Earls’ and Berkley’s article. Because if you believe what Earls and Berkley write, then the whole idea of powerful sneezers (best explained in Seth’s ideavirus) would become obsolete.
- Small fires and the apparent lack of strategy
Also, Earls and Berkley advise marketeers to “start lots of fires in lots of promising places” which clearly is a complete turnaround looking from the perspective of marketeers who still believe that a grand unified strategy or campaign will do the trick. This unified stragegy-perception is primarily based on the misconception that we will all copy the leader if she has something interesting to say. Period.
We copy because others have copied. But change also happens because other people make certain choices and start to lead –long before they are know to do so. Sure, the copying mechanism is important, but so is the idea of leadership.
- Forget about control and conquer: imagine, have faith and rule
Some marketeers will always wonder how they can combine and control the two. These people see marketing as a religion, as a set of rules which you can master and which will help you bend and control reality (Earls and Berkley use the term “shoehorning”). These marketeers prefer the shorttime approach based on tactics rather than on strategy. These marketeers crave for predictability. They want to know for sure (or their clients demand them to pretend they are).
But that’s impossible, something both Seth and Earls and Berkley agree on.
It’s only when you look at the world with a more holistic perspective that impossibilities can become probabilities. And probability is something we can deal with.
In fact: probability is all we get to work with in life.
How to make probability work?
Look at Google. Mastering these Petabytes of information and turning it into something useful is impossible, as long as you presume that in order to turn use this vast amount of information you need to understand every bit of it. Not possible since there’s always more and more information added to the weg.
Yet Google has managed to translate this mass into useful answers.
To get something working in real life, you need to imagine it first, then pursue your dream, take the first step and have faith. Work it out, have it challenged, maybe even abandon it. But as long as you don’t put it into practice it is wrong anyway. So at Google, they put their idea, their approach to probability into practice. They didn’t treat it as a second-hand, handicapped way of dealing with reality.
They understood that this is the way we handle life.
And we’re good at it. Not perfect, but good, really good.
And for all we know, we just might become better by simply keeping on doing it.
If only we have faith.
If only we can imagine.
If only we believe we can.
Great starting points for your personal quest:
- Herd: the hidden truth … (Mark Earls’ blog)
- Forget influentials, herd-like copying is how brands spread (pdf)
- Seth Godin
- Tribes (Godin’s last book)
- Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely’s stunning book on behavioural economics, just to understand why we’re not really independent thinkers after all)
- Chris Anderson: The End of Theory