Epidemiology and the Spread of Ideas

Last time, I wrote about the spread of ideas and especially how your customers talk about your offers.  This post explores the spread of ideas at a deeper level. How do insights from epidemiology help?

If you want to get ahead …

Way back, the most successful UK advertising campaign took the country by storm.    Everyone quoted a slogan produced by the Hat Council: “if you want to get ahead, get a hat”.  The slogan appeared in printed media from the 1930s, into the 1940s.  Everyone was familiar with it and if you quoted the start everyone else would chorus the final phrase.  Over the lifetime of this slogan, hat sales declined.

This story illustrates the power of a well-turned phrase and that such a phrase does not necessarily increase sales!  Today with the Internet ideas, phrases, videos, etc go viral and as such their originators cannot control them.

If you succeed in getting something passed onto millions, you cannot predict how they will use it.  Certainly, such a phrase could raise several boats, possibly not including your own.

It is more helpful if you get your message circulating among your market.  Satisfied customers  may be willing to spread a good idea, which effectively communicated might go beyond your customers so that you build a tribe of supporters.

Spreading the Word

  1. What is it about your idea that gets people to tell others about it?
  2. Who is likely to spread it and in what context?
  3. What changes could you make to your idea or context that will make people more likely to pass it on?

Insights from Epidemiology

How do parasites, viruses and bacteria spread from host to host?  This study is known as epidemiology and it offers some insights into the spread of ideas.  The parallels are not absolute because the organisms spread tend to remain the same.  The organism that changes as it spreads runs the risk of changing to such an extent it becomes less effective at spreading.

Ideas are more malleable and subject to interpretation.   Arguably, it is playing with ideas that makes us human.  Online, a video may pass unscathed but even so the further it travels the more likely it is to be interpreted in new ways.

In epidemiology, R0 measures the spread of disease.  R0=1 means everyone who catches the disease passes it on to one other person.  R0>1 means the disease will on average spread to more than one person.  R0<1 means the disease passes to fewer than 1 person; it will soon die out.

Most ideas including your offers, have R0=0.  This is the fundamental problem we all face in marketing.  Remember this is not about whether the idea is a good one.  It is about how successful you are at spreading it.

Ideas must be remarkable to spread, how can you make it happen?

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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