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The Trouble with Viral

Posted by: Burth Helm on July 16, 2007

A new study confirms what we pretty much already knew: pinning your marketing to a viral campaign is about as reliable as picking “rock star” as a career. But “influencers,” the study demonstrates, have even less influence than we thought.

Matthew Creamer has a good story out about it today. Using mathematical models of social networks, Columbia Professor Duncan Watts looked at how behavior or information cascades among groups of people, or what we think of as “going viral.” He found that the people we think of as “influencers” — trusted folks with friends in many different social spheres — don’t really influence many people beyond their immediate community. Watts argues that a much more reliable way to spark trends is by going after a large group of easily-influenced people, even if they don’t have as many friends.

Online marketers, or anybody who has tried to start “The Wave” at a ballpark, realize this. When you’re trying to get something to go viral you’re essentially striking a flint and hoping it starts a fire. The more times you strike the flint, the better your chances. That’s why wave-starters stand up dozens of times before anybody actually starts doing it. That’s also why corporate virals are come sponsored on the front-page of YouTube (explaining why even the dumbest corporate virals get a couple of hundred thousand views, while your little brother’s amusing one gets a few hundred). It’s easier to spark a lot of little waves than hope to catalyze one big Tsunami of web traffic all at once.

You’ll find even viral vids we thought just came out of nowhere, like Ok Go’s homemade treadmill music video, is in fact not the result of pure luck or some influential patient zero but the result of diligent work. Ok Go has been doing this kind of stuff for years - I remember seeing an earlier video “A Million Ways” video on a public access station in Brooklyn way before they hopped on treadmills. They kept at it, the videos got better, they got lucky, and it sparked. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an example of a video that went viral completely naturally.



News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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