What makes a video, business concept, blog post or social media update go viral?
How much does it have to do with how good the work is, how inspiring the message may be or how insightful the comment turns out?
Less than we might think, it turns out.
The network effect has been around before the internet, and offers perhaps the best explanation of how ideas spread.
Kevin Alcoa explains in this TED talk that on YouTube the thing that may lead to an idea going viral is to be picked up by a tastemaker.
Tastemakers are people with large communities of their own – they are well networked and when they share something it can go out to a large audience.
Tastemakers sit at the centre of their network. What they see and share is what their community is exposed to.
This means that instead of finding the next big thing, tastemakers are in the business of creating the next big thing – whether they know it or not.
Their act of observing the world of ideas results in them selecting ideas that may then go on to be successful.
This happens when the community of people sharing the idea starts to intermingle and becomes a large enough group.
At that point, the idea is on the cusp of going viral, and after that it can spread through the rest of the population like a self-sustaining infectious disease.
Tastemakers have another advantage. When you have a large enough network, the ideas come to you – and so your task is to select what you think is going to appeal to your network.
Marketers know this, and so are increasingly investing in sponsoring people with large networks to get their ideas out – a more effective method than mass advertising for many products and services.
This is not new – it’s been applied in regular business in niche areas as well.
Warren Buffett simply places a small note in his shareholder letters asking people who want to sell business to get in touch and listing out his criteria – and this method has helped him build a collection of companies with market beating returns because so many people read it every year.
The difference now, with the Internet, is that rather than being a niche approach, this way of spreading ideas is going mainstream.
The implication, however, is that the thing that makes an idea successful is not how good it is, but whether it gets picked up by the people at the centre of a network of their own.