The art of starting an epidemic

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Starting an epidemic might be one of the biggest challenges in marketing, and it takes much more than just a great idea to start spreading.

For writing this article I used  the book “The Tipping Point”, written by Malcolm Gladwell and published in 2000.

Based on this concept, I will give you tools and indications to start an epidemic and go viral with your ideas. The purpose here is to understand what are the mechanisms hidden behind viral marketing. The idea is not simply to create a great-and-funny message which will automatically spread by itself: we must analyze the different layers of viral marketing and try to re-use those more specifically. The ultimate goal is to reach the tipping point: the point where an idea tips from a simple concept to a huge success using viral marketing.

How to create epidemic? How to build viral message? How to encourage people to spread my message? Those are questions I will try to answer within this article. The art of starting an epidemic 

The four rules of epidemic

According to Malcolm Gladwell, there are three rules of epidemic: the law of the few, the stickiness factor and the power of context. I personally add “the key of monitoring” as a fourth essential rule.

Gathering those four rules within a marketing plan assures you to create a message with a true viral potential. However, you can’t ever predict the success of a campaign before trying it, simply because it involves so many factors out of your control.


The law of the few

The law of the few can be defined as follow: within the human population, a few people can be considered as exceptional. Those precious people are the one who will help your marketing campaign going viral.

Gladwell divides those people as follow:

Mavens – the Mavens are naturally curious people who are passionate about one or several specific topics. For example, a Maven could be someone who loves cars and always knows before anyone what will be the new cars on the market and where to find them for a cheaper price. The Maven is someone who loves to know more and to share this knowledge with people. If someone around you always gives you advice you may not ask for and usually hits correctly, this person might be a Maven: he knows a lot of things in his own area and he truly enjoys sharing it with you. Mavens are in general the first person you will turn to when searching for specific information. Learn how to recognize them: they will have a real power in your campaign!


Connectors – the Connectors are incredible people: they have more friends and contacts you would ever dream making. Gladwell created a very interesting test (published here, on his website) to evaluate your potential as a Connector. Connectors usually don’t even notice they are extremely social: they just love spending time with people. They are not kind of person building strong and deep relationships with their friends, but prefer to collect friends. They are easy to recognize though: in a group of friends, Connectors are always the ones who linked others together. If you have a friend who introduced you to other friends and appears in several of your friends’ circles, you can bet he is a Connector. Connectors are incredible as they are a direct bridge to a huge audience: they keep regular contact with all of their friends and, as Mavens, love sharing news and information.


Salesmen – Salesmen are extremely easy to recognize. If you know someone who always manages to convince you, you probably found a Salesman. Those rare people have something you can’t learn in business school: their secret does not lie in the content of what they say, it is what they say. Salesmen naturally talk with their whole body: the way they move, the way they smile, the intonation of their voice, the words they use… all, even their silences have impact on your feelings. In any marketing or sales strategy, a true Salesman is a key asset: learn how to recognize them.


Those people are extremely rare, that is why this rule is called “Law of the few”. However, they have a great impact on people around them. One of them can have much greater impact than hundreds of “normal” people. Recognizing and listing “the few” will be the first step in your journey to success.

If you spread a message and manage reaching those people, they will do the rest of the work and change your simple message into a viral buzz. But for this, you must first identify them and address them with the right message.

Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen don’t talk about things they don’t like, trust or understand. They all have their own preferences, habits, passions… you must understand them if you want them to help your promotion.

Once you recognized them and found what they like, you must address them with the proper message: no one likes advertising. Always give value to the people you are talking to: people are always keen to learn more, but they are seldom enthusiastic about being advertised. The art of starting an epidemic


The stickiness factor

A message does not naturally stick to people’s mind. It is your job to find ways to make your message sticky.

The concept of stickiness is as follow: how to make sure people will remember my message? Let’s take the example of this present article: it may contain a lot of interesting and valuable facts, but how do I make sure you will remember it?

The whole problem of marketing stands here: you can create great messages and campaigns, if people forget about it immediately after receiving it, then your campaign will fail.

The stickiness factor basically states that you must find ways for your public to remember you. It can be through tricks inside the message itself, such as humor or sticky music that people would remember, or it can be through the media: repeating the same message again and again is the common method used for advertising. In the example of this article, I will use several tricks to makes this article sticky; First, I will use examples and links that will fix in your mind. Then, I will use social media so that the article will appear to your eyes several times. Finally, I will offer you a structure to follow, encouraging you to come back to use it later on. Indeed, no of those “tricks” can make sure my article will be sticky and that you will remember it.

Before going live with your message, try to evaluate its stickiness with a simple test: show your idea to a test group. Wait for a few days and evaluate what remains of your message in people’s mind (using questionnaire or any other way). If your message sticked, then you are ready to go live. Otherwise, try to optimize the message in order to make it stick to people’s mind.


The power of context

The best message delivered to the right people will have no impact if the context isn’t good.

Not long ago, I was watching a French documentary about people who built their internet business back in 2000. Eleven years later, those same people were interviewed to evaluate their success. Within those people, we could find two women, Marie-Axelle Loustalot-Forest and Ghislaine Hanrio, who created, in 2000, a concept equivalent to today’s Groupon. Their concept completely failed because back in 2000, there were just few people using the internet, and even fewer trusting it. In 2008, Groupon appears with the same concept and meets a worldwide success. Why? This is the power of context: in 2000, the world wasn’t a good environment for such idea. In 2008, the context changed, and the idea became a success story. (You can watch the French video here from minute 25)

The power of context basically states that there is no message that can success if the context isn’t right. The context includes the timing and the environment: would you tell people the benefits of the new 3D TV if those people don’t even have enough to eat?

Try to put yourself into your target’s mind and imagine how the message will be received. As a recipient, what would you expect from the message?

Before sending your message to the world, try to feel if all conditions are here for your success. What is the best place and time to send my message?


The key of monitoring

Now, your message is very sticky, placed in the perfect context, and sent to the right people for turning it into a viral campaign.

Are you ready to meet success? Not quite yet.

Did you think about monitoring?

The first thing to know about viral marketing and epidemics is that you completely lose control of your message immediately after sending it. People will listen, understand, modify and repeat your message endlessly. This is what we call word of mouth: a true game of Chinese whispers where the initial message is usually very different from the one at the end of the line.

However, even though you don’t have control on your message anymore, you must monitor it.

With today’s internet, messages spread faster than ever. It is more difficult than before to know where the message goes, but it is much easier than before to monitor such message: use internet tools to know what people say about you, your products, your services.

Be ready! Once the virus spreads, people start talking. Be on the internet, ready to catch messages as they arrive, and comment on them whenever you can add value. Do not try controlling it: you will waste your time and credibility. Just surf the wave and push it forward.

Use tools such as Twitter search, Google blogs search, Google alert, etc…to monitor what is happening on the web. Whenever you catch a conversation talking about your message, if, and only if, you can add value, jump into it.
Try bringing more information to people, answering questions, building credibility and legitimacy. If people are angry, be humble, calm them down with clear and useful answers. The goal here is to encourage the Words of Mouth to continue spreading.

When analyzing the reactions of people, you will be able to fine-tune your current strategy and improve your communication for next ones.


The result

Now, you have a sticky message, addressed to the right people in the right context, you message is spreading fast and you monitor it in order to push it always further.

Congratulations! You have started an epidemic! The art of starting an epidemic


Don’t be afraid of losing control: virus can spread only when it gets out of control. If you try to restrain things too much, the epidemic will never grow wild.

Your questions “How to start an epidemic” and “How to start viral marketing” must be answered by now.

You might be disappointed to see that, even though you followed carefully each step, your message did not go viral: it may not have been the right context yet. You can’t be successful at once: it takes several tries to get your message running by itself. Keep searching for the right ingredients and always monitor your campaigns whether those are successful or not: this is the only way to avoid doing the same mistakes again and to build your path to success. Next time, your message will go viral and you will reach the tipping point, changing your simple business into a great success.


I  strongly recommend you to read "The Tipping point", from Malcolm Gladwell if you want to go further in developing those ideas.


I also encourage you to read my article "The basics of network marketing" in order to get a better understanding of this essential notion used by the Law of the Few as well as "Become a connector: the importance of building your network".


Julien Rio.



Last update: 2024-07-19 Tags:

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