Engineering Viral Success

vampire weekend concert nyu viral

This past weekend I saw Vampire Weekend debut a new album at the Virgin Mega Store in NYC — back to this point in a bit.

In a recent article, Is the Tipping Point Toast?, Fast Company’s Duncan Watts suggests that network influencers (think Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point) are not that important in making something viral:

Actually, if you believe Watts, the world isn’t just complex–it’s practically anarchic. In 2006, he performed another experiment that chilled the blood of trendologists. Trends, it suggested, aren’t merely hard to predict and engineer — they occur essentially at random.

Taking the example which bands become popular, he goes onto say:

“You cannot predict in advance whether a band gets a huge cascade of popularity, because the social network is liable to throw up almost any result — if you rewound the world to 1982, Madonna would likely remain a total unknown–and someone else would have slipped into her steel-tipped corset.

Hmm. I doubt that very muchI think Watts massively underestimates the role of influencers, especially in early stages of traction.

Apple for example: The Mac has been aided by significant, influential early adopters that have helped to evangelize the product as a tool for innovation and creativity (in contrast to say, Microsoft/Windows). Apple didn’t just luck into its current demographic success. Jobs was an early influencer, a branding genius. The ‘Think Different” campaign was transcendent.

Back to Vampire Weekend. How did this crew of four recently graduated Columbia University students end of debuting an album at the Virgin Store and selling out the Bowery Ballroom? How have they come to be featured in the New York Times? Influence. They leveraged early connections for traction, PR and word-of-mouth, including many influential venture capitalists. Their success is not random.

Likewise, Ben and I have been building Facebook applications for th past few months. These apps are great study in viral traction and success. From what I’ve seen, whether or not an app gains traction is not at all random. In fact, it’s a science.

For example, identifying key installers with hundreds of friends means an installer can send it to more people. When the same influential person becomes a fan of an app, a percentage of that person’s 500 friends see that they are ‘now a fan’. It’s a much larger reach for a call-to-action. It’s a viral loop.

Bottom line: viral success is not simply random.


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