ADOTAS – I have two confessions to make. First, I fell in love with the movie Titanic when I first saw it. It was such a sweeping epic – storytelling at its cinematic best, mind-blowing special effects, and yes, I sobbed at the end as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jack sank into the gloomy depths of the frigid North Atlantic.
The second confession I have to make is that I did not see this phenomenon of a movie until well over a year after it was first released into the theaters. At first I trusted a few (mostly male) friends’ reviews of the film, but I finally caved in when more and more of my network unabashedly recommended that I see the film. After finding a second-run movie theater, one of the last few that was still actually showing it, I finally saw what became one of my all-time favorite movies.
So why didn’t I see it sooner? The critics raved, the massive box office numbers proved its broad appeal, and the media was all a-buzz with it. All things pointed to me seeing it much earlier than I did. But this was long before Web 2.0, and social media was in its very embryonic stages (think email and message boards) and had far less reach. Today I can see what friends from anywhere in the world think of a movie by going online instead of making a phone call, but back then crowd-sourcing took much more time. My limited view held me back from plunking down ten bucks to see the movie.
And today, 14 years after the film made such a huge splash, social recommendations, whether endorsements or disapprovals, play a bigger role than ever, especially as the social, connected web is reportedly eclipsing the “document” or “searchable web.” Now, instead of relying on in-person conversations with my friends, I can see those friends’ recommendations from their Likes, their wall posts, their emails, their +1s, their tweets, their shares, etc.
In fact, social media has amplified the effect of social recommendation and endorsement by making it very easy to assert an opinion to be read by hundreds of trusted friends and contacts. If “Titanic” came out today, I’d find out much sooner how wrong those first male friends who warned me to steer clear were; but, equally quickly, I could broadcast through social media that they were clearly out of their depth!
So what exactly is social endorsement? The simplest definition of social endorsement is a friend’s or acquaintance’s positive view on something, whether it be a piece of content (like a film) or a brand (like Leonardo DiCaprio or Paramount). And when a brand is looking to provoke positive emotions towards itself among its current and prospective consumers, the viral diffusion of this social endorsement spreads positivity about a brand quickly and broadly.
There’s a reason why the term “virality” has been adopted by brand and social media marketers to describe this process: the way a brand endorsement spreads is not unlike the way a virus might spread throughout a population. (For more takes on this idea, see insightful articles by Dan Zarrella and David Hornik).
What was thought to be a bad cold and an unusual increase in cases of pneumonia turned out to be called the 1918 Influenza Pandemic by historians, and claimed more lives than the World War that immediately preceded it. In studying a pandemic like this, epidemiologists often rely on a factor called R0 (r-naught). In scientific terms, R0 is the basic reproductive rate of an infection and is the mean number of secondary cases a typical single infected case will cause in a population with no immunity to the disease in the absence of interventions to control the infection.
Simply put, R0 is the rate at which infection spreads. When R0 is less than one (i.e. on average, infected hosts only pass it on to less than one other person), there is no chance for pandemic spread. Greater than one, and R0 shows us how quickly a virus can infect a significant portion of a population.
R0 itself has three main drivers: how long an infected patient is contagious (duration), how virulent and contagious the virus is (virulence), and the number of susceptible people an infected patient comes in contact with (contacts). When drawing parallels to the spread of a brand message, we can think of these three drivers this way:
- Infection Duration: How long something remains top-of-mind to a consumer
- Infection Virulence: How novel, interesting, and surprising is the content, and how appropriate is it to share with others
- Infection Contacts: How easily does the consumer have access to sharing mechanisms, how much of an “influencer” or “sharer” the consumer is
When crafting a brand marketing campaign that relies on word-of-mouth to spread (and really, don’t they all?), it’s critical to keep these factors in mind. It’s worth noting that “duration” and “virulence” are both largely in the hands of the brand. They shoulder the responsibility of communicating and interacting with the consumer in a way that entertains, informs, and delights them such that the message remains top-of-mind and interesting enough to share.
Where social media companies come in is in the “contacts”: how effective their platforms are in spreading a brand message and how extensive a reach their community of influencers has. Where StumbleUpon differs is that not only does it offer simple mechanisms for sharing and a passionate community of influencers, but it also has a direct effect on “duration” as the brand marketer gets 100% share of voice when interacting with the consumer and on “virulence” as its users look to the service to recommend great, quality content.
Positive Emotional Association: Context Matters!
We now understand better how a brand message spreads throughout a user population – but is it having the desired effect on those users? We know from Brand Advertising 101 that a high-quality brand message in the right context to a consumer leads to a positive experience and emotional response, which itself leads to a positive brand association by the consumer. If the message isn’t right – if the time, place, current activity by the consumer, attention of the consumer held, etc., isn’t right – then not only will a positive emotional response not be elicited and associated with the brand, but the brand risks a negative response and association if it annoys, distracts, deters, or otherwise thwarts the consumer. For example, lengthy video pre-rolls or full-page interstitials may be tolerated, but hardly embraced.
No, the best brand message is one that is delivered when consumers are effectively asking for it. If they are checking their friends’ activity feeds, or trying to watch a funny cat video, brand messages are at best a distraction, and having an effect on duration or virulence is seriously undermined. One could, of course, take the “spray and pray” approach that is most often employed in social media, and blast a brand message out to as many eyeballs as possible, in the hope that something sticks. But the significant risk here is that what ends up sticking is not what the brand wanted to stick (think GroupOn’s SuperBowl ad).
When our users come to us and click the “Stumble!” button, they are in fact telling us something very important: delight me. Delight me, surprise me, entertain me, inform me, show me something I’ve never seen before that’s relevant to me. StumbleUpon understands our users’ interests, both because those users have explicitly told our system as part of signing up for our service, and because our technology has implicitly deduced their preferences over time based on what they’ve thumbed-up and thumbed-down and what they’ve shared and commented on, not to mention positive associations with their friends’ interests.
This turns out to be an incredibly powerful combination: consumers’ openness to new things + nuanced targeting = ideal brand marketing opportunity. It’s the basic premise upon which StumbleUpon Paid Discovery is built: our users are looking to discover, asking to be delighted. With that right context and the targeting provided by Paid Discovery, a brand marketer’s experience in finding the ideal audience could be smooth sailing.
It’s clear to me now, some 14 years later, that had I seen Titanic with a wider knowledge of how my interests align with the movie’s promise, it should have been a dead ringer for me to be at the front of the box office line. Social media has enabled us to see content and brands through a light of discovering something new, but something that is also targeted specifically for me.
In the end, the ways in which brand content are shared through social media are no different than they were before, but the effectiveness and reach have been vastly improved. When we lower both the threshold and the amount of information needed to share, then what we’ve seen so far in the way of social recommendation is but the tip of the iceberg!
Cross-published at the StumbleUpon blog.