Thursday I attended the TechCrunch/Austin Ventures panel: â€œThe Web Starts at the Grassroots.â€� Eric Schonfeld of TechCrunch was the moderator of a topic which proved to be much more ambiguous than expected.
One of the key questions that emerged is what separates a grassroots initiative from a viral initiative? In my opinion, there is an enormous difference, and I’d like to take a stab at articulating what this is.
Grassroots initiatives as I see them consist of a series of sustained group efforts over time to achieve objectives supported by all participants. For example, Saturday morning at my hotel in Austin there was a meet-up of Austin locals organizing a cancer awareness bike ride. There were 20 people or so attending the meeting and each person left with a specific task that they’d report on when the group reconvened the following week. This series of meetings and the fact that everyone was ultimately looking to raise awareness and capital for a cause clearly makes this a grassroots initiative in my mind.
Now contrast grassroots with an example of an initiative that is simply viral, like the now famous OBama Girl Video on YouTube. Another example of viral was shared on the panel; word-of-mouth marketing leading to a huge turnout (on short notice) for an autograph session with tennis star Andy Roddick. Getting a huge number of page views or a on-time turnout (with the incentive of an autograph) is not grassroots.
What’s confusing is that viral efforts — like grassroots efforts — are started when an underlying group of people become passionate or excited about a particular message, goal or opportunity. The key difference though is that viral efforts tend to involve very limited commitment. Consider the difference between joining the Facebook group for Obama versus volunteering to hand out fliers two nights a week.
Understanding this distinction between grassroots and viral is critical because grassroots movements are inherently more powerful mechanisms over time. The additional level of commitment and time required suggests movements that are more sticky and sustainable. My guess is that if we wanted to predict the next big movement or trend, we should be looking for those with grassroots traction; not simply viral traction.
From a marketing perspective, consider what would motivate people to help build Wikipedia even though contributors were offered no incentive. Contrast this with 37 Signals’ new affiliate program: if you get people to sign-up for Basecamp, you get a commission. While the strategy of 37 Signals has the potential to become viral, it likely won’t, or it will be short-lived. The TechCrunch spike is the same thing. I’d much rather build a launch strategy around a small group of uber-committed folks who simply can’t live without my product than take my chances on a one-time traffic rush, hoping some percentage sticks. The later is what I have previously dubbed Tipping Point Marketing. I wish the panel had been able to dive into this difference in more depth.
As a side note I was truly impressed by the diversity and the passion displayed by the Austin startup community, especially those participating on the panel. Austin is an amazing place and I look forward to following the progress of the areas’ startups.