how ideas spread
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Building Brand Awareness: The Science of How Ideas Spread

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As much as we may be tired of seeing the word “viral” everywhere, the excitement when one of our campaigns grows far and fast still drives us to question: What is it about an idea that makes it spread so rapidly? Why do some things become wildly popular while others fade away as soon as they’re created?

In one form or another, we’ve been asking this question for centuries. From marketing, to economics, to sociology, we’re all interested in what makes an idea successful. Which current trends and events will predict the movement of the stock market? How are our cultures and societies are shaped by the ways individuals think and act collectively over time?

The Science of Social Transmission

An underlying concern of every marketing strategy is how to launch ideas that gain traction in the public sphere and get impressive results. We all want to find the genius concept that will stick and spread. Getting these results and making your brand a notable player in the public consciousness all starts with increasing brand awareness.

In the academic world, psychologists and sociologists call this ability the science of social transmission. It’s a concept which can be roughly divided into three areas: individual psychology, social influence, and social networks, all of which can be applied to your marketing strategy.

Individual Psychology

Arguably one of the most important things for marketers and creatives to know about human psychology is that we are irrational decision makers. This means our behavior is easily swayed by the specific conditions and triggers of any given moment. This includes everything from our internal emotional state to the kind of music that’s playing while we weigh one option against another.

holistic content marketing

Image attribution: Tyler Nix

One recent study on how music affects consumer behavior found that the degree to which background music was congruent with a product affected people’s ability to recall the product, the likelihood they would choose to buy that product, and the amount they were willing to pay for it. For example, if French music were playing in a wine and cheese store, people would be willing to pay more for those products than if Chinese music were playing. If the store were selling Chinese goods, the results would be reversed.

In addition to the cultural connection, the study found a connection between different genres of music and different types of products. For instance, classical music increased people’s willingness to pay for products related to social identity, while country music increased people’s willingness to pay for utilitarian products.

This is why we need to form our marketing strategies in a holistic way. We may put together the perfect product in a perfect package that would, in an environmental vacuum, connect immediately with our customers. Yet, if it’s on a shelf of a store playing the wrong kind of music, our efforts may be curtailed.

Surrounding your brand and your products with rich content marketing is one way to immerse your audience in a holistic experience made up of strong storytelling, visuals, and audio. Our brains are complicated processing machines prone to distraction, so the richer and more unified the content we can offer, the better we’re able to hold that attention and reward our cognitive systems.

But what kind of content is it exactly that sticks in our memory?

In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath talk about six key principles of content that can make it more memorable for the human brain: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories.

A simple idea is easy to understand and digest amid the digital noise we face daily. An unexpected idea surprises us, capturing our attention. A concrete idea deals with specific concepts that can more easily open up relevant connections in our neural web of information processing. A credible idea is authentic, consistent, detailed, and comes from a believable source. Evoking emotions and telling rich stories reaches the deep levels of processing where our brains knit ideas into solid structures in long-term memory. The authors provide a handy acronym to remember each quality: SUCCES.

The kind of content we produce and the environment in which it’s produced all impact the extent to which it sticks in our memory; this is the first stage of an idea that has good spreading potential. The next stage considers how social influence changes the way we behave.

Social Influence

It should come as no surprise that our social groups have a significant impact on our behavior—obviously we don’t operate in psychological silos—but the extent to which our social circles can influence our decision-making is pretty staggering.

In some of the most classic psychological studies, the Asch conformity experiments, researcher Solomon Asch observed the extent to which social pressure from a majority group of individuals could influence a study participant to conform to the group. He found that 75 percent of participants conformed at least once to an answer the rest of the individuals in a group gave, even when it was blatantly wrong. One reason we do this is because we want to fit in and feel accepted. The other is because we genuinely believe the group is better informed than we are.

If all of your friends buy Brand A jeans, but you genuinely prefer Brand B jeans, there’s a high likelihood you’ll buy Brand A. If your job is to market Brand B jeans, even if you’ve succeeded in appealing to your target’s individual tastes, you’re facing an uphill battle in trying to win them over in this friend group. The social conformity influence is strong.

social influencer psychology

Image attribution: Kevin Grieve

The social divergence influence is also strong. This is the tendency for us to want to distance ourselves from those we identify as belonging to other groups we don’t want to be associated with. This is why most of us avoid things resembling swastikas or white pointy headdresses with eyeholes, for instance.

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For marketers, the power of social influence demands that we pay close attention to the cultural currency of different types of content, products, and brands, and work extra hard to frame our offerings in the right way. We need to be clear about what buying our brands says about our customers, their lifestyles, and their social circles. Lifestyle marketing has become so popular for this very reason: we are heavily swayed by the social and cultural significance of the products and experiences we consume.

Social Networks

Social influence leads to one of the most powerful marketing channels we know of today: word of mouth.

One of the best ways to get your ideas to spread is to get someone to advocate them for you. Why? Because we live in a sea of mistrust when it comes to our content.

We reject traditional advertising techniques and formats that try to “sell” us anything, and we’re even suspicious of journalistic content because of the proliferation of “fake news.” Trust is not in abundance in the digital world, so instead we turn to the people closest to us for advice and recommendations when it comes to our buying decisions.

As marketers, we should be looking for ways to maximize the likelihood that our content and our products will be shared, especially across the social channels we love to use most: Facebook, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter.

Though an Instagram-worthy photo may be worth a thousand likes, it’s more than just about visually appealing content. As Krystal Overmyer explains for the Content Standard, encouraging interaction and identifying with people’s lifestyles and niche passions goes a long way towards getting people to share your content. Emphasizing qualities that people want to associate with their sense of self, like being eco-friendly, sustainable, or pro-social, activates social conformity norms that have a big impact on our behavior.

Using social media influencers to amplify the reach of your messaging can be effective, but it’s becoming another technique that consumers are increasingly wary of. Micro-influencers may be a better way to go than celebrity endorsements, both for your brand’s credibility and your wallet. This follows the word-of-mouth logic: Who are you more likely to trust, a celebrity or a friend?

Obviously, we all want our brand to be a hit and reach the largest audience possible. To make content with instant appeal and strong staying power, make sure you are employing a holistic marketing strategy, developing messaging that aligns with aspects of cultural currency, and creating assets that can be readily shared via word of mouth.

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Featured image attribution: Omar Lopez

Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at AnewTraveller.com. Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at nicola.lauren.brown@gmail.com

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