Monday, 22 September 2008

Ups and Downs of Trendsetting

In a previous post I suggested that the epidemic model most often associated with viral marketing seems to assume the susceptibility of the population – or “spreadability” of the contagion – without much analysis of what this might come to. In this post, I’ll look at some mechanisms that make cultural artifacts both valuable and the kind of thing someone might want to spread. The story I relate isn't specifically about viral marketing, but it does highlight the mechanisms any viral marketing campaign must address. Finally, I’ll draw some speculative conclusions about viral marketing’s lopsided – but understandable – focus on so-called influentials.

Obligatory Anecdote

A long time ago, a relatively regular acquaintance of mine showed up at a punk rock venue dressed to the nines in a sharp, trim sharkskin suit and brand new creepers. This getup was in clear contrast with the self-conscious filthiness of the post-punk slouches (like myself... and him previously) the show attracted. Noting my admiration for his duds, he pinched apart the breast of his jacket, danced a little jig and sang “I’m the only mod in town! I’m the only mod in town!”

Cultural artifacts, like fashions and fads, often display a peculiar value reversal. If the trend seems to be on a successful trajectory – seems like it’s going to be big, but isn’t yet – we have incentive to adopt. But once it reaches a certain level of dispersion in the relevant population, the incentive reverses for many people. If they get on early and whatever it is takes off, they get credit or some sort of cultural profit. If they remain after everyone else jumps off or they get on too late, however, it’s embarrassing. There’s coordination value at the beginning – they have incentive to do as relevant others do – but as uptake increases, dis-value sets in and their preferences switch. The trend goes from being profitable to dis-valued and at this point, profit lies in switching.

My acquaintance in this story was garnering symbolic profit by switching, distancing himself from a fashion he’d embraced at one time. He was a guy who knew what was cool and acceptable within his group and the move was intended to generate symbolic profit, or respect and recognition, by making a calculated move at the appropriate time in the uptake curve. He was a guy who noticed and partook of trends early and abandoned strategically. We’ll call those with low initial value and value-to-disvalue switching thresholds trendsetters, and those with moderate initial value and switching thresholds fashionables. Here’s an illustration of the basic idea.

This value-to-disvalue switch looks like what’s called a crowding game, the most famous of which is the El Farol Game. In this one, however, there are two thresholds: the point at which initially partaking seems valuable and the point at which it reverses. The preference matrices at the top of the graphic illustrate how your preferences of Best (B), Second (S), Third (T) and Worst (W) options for partaking (p) given what others do change as the population partaking (P(t)) increases. That is, as the population partaking of a particular cultural artifact increases with time, partaking of the artifact switches from symbolically profitable to unprofitable. Put another way, at some point (tx), it’s profitable to switch to something else. If you’re a trendsetter, someone hungry for symbolic profit, your switching threshold is pretty low.

What about the first threshold, the join threshold. The trendsetters are the important characters here. They're the ones that get the uptake into everyone elses' interest zones. My claim is that they won't see a cultural item as profitable unless it's understandable against the backdrop of their reference group. It has to damn conformity locally (or just be surprising) while honoring conformity globally (be within their reference group's range of valid moves). Even if the trendsetter is a so-called “Innovator” – i.e. the first threshold, the uptake population she feels indicates a viable trend, is really small, maybe even just one – the move won’t actually be profitable unless it makes some sort of sense to the group from which profit is sought.

Do You Know Your Capitals?

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is famous for developing the notion of cultural capital and popularizing the notion of social capital. Less celebrated is his idea of symbolic capital. Bourdieu analogizes socio-cultural fields to markets, with social, cultural and institutional differences between agents and classes generating potentials for profit and loss. The various “capitals” he posits (by loose analogy to economic capital) are resources that agents use to generate symbolic or material profit in interactions with others.

Cultural capital is the accumulated codes, conventional tastes, institutionally bestowed skills and general cultural abilities we each have that help us to succeed in a given domain. It’s our skill at deciphering, appreciating and generating cultural artifacts relative to some socio-cultural arena. Connoisseurs of film, for example, have a high degree of cultural capital in regards to film: they understand and consume films at a deeper, more broadly informed level than the rest of us do. They can also discuss film at a higher, potentially exclusionary and socially profitable (we feel stupid and they look smart), level. Social capital is the material and symbolic profits realized in your social circle. It’s what your group – club, neighborhood, gang, etc. – can do for you, as a resource, as a source of rights and obligations and as an instrument of self-presentation. Symbolic capital is the social recognition – prestige, status or esteem – an agent has relative to some group. It usually manifests itself in terms of deference and increased weight of input. Display of cultural capital – of your mastery of the cultural codes and themes of some domain – can generate symbolic capital. For example, being labeled a connoisseur isn’t simply descriptive, it’s also normative: it’s a term of appreciation for your consumption skills and abilities in some domain. Connoisseurs wield significant symbolic capital in virtue of their recognized cultural capital.

Now, I have some issues with Bourdieu, in particular that his “capitals” were articulated in a sort of fruity Continental tone in terms of old world class strata. But regardless of the embarrassingly Comp Lit-ish wrapper, the ideas of social, cultural and symbolic capital as sketched depict a pretty interesting picture. Socio-cultural interaction is a market within which we strive for some sort of symbolic profit and recognition by leveraging, displaying and deploying cultural skills, usually from within a more or less well-defined group.

Putting it Together

What I’m suggesting is that the Trendsetter Preference Reversal Phenomenon™ is often the effect of deploying cultural capital (knowing the bounds of acceptability and normative play within some reference group) for the accumulation of symbolic capital. My acquaintance’s move from filthy post-punk to dapper mod was made against the backdrop of a specific, historical subculture that had connections with the idea of mod culture (part of the popular conception of punk rock history). It was a historically informed move that made sense as a manifestation of cultural capital specific to its subcultural context. To generalize, in the case of trendsetters it’s the local variance within global conformity that generates symbolic capital. A local conformity was damned, but a larger subcultural conformity was honored and thus, symbolic capital was generated. Though the actual form of the move was surprising and thus able to generate profit, it made sense and could be evaluated against its larger subcultural backdrop.

Even though the story of my acquaintance's style shift isn't about viral marketing as such, it highlights the general mechanisms by which something may be judged potentially profitable within culture. Though rarely put in these terms, ultimately, that's what viral campaigns are about: trying to get me to see some cultural artifact as potentially profitable – as something I want to publicly partake of – and in so doing give me incentive to pass it on to you. But the passing it on is (often) about me generating symbolic profit. It's not simply (though of course this is part of it) because I think you'd like it. Rather it's because your enjoyment of it could potentially make me look better.

The trendsetter preference reversal phenomenon means your item will spread – if it's distinct yet understandable within the target group's culture – from those hungry for symbolic capital early in the uptake cycle. As it disperses, it's value will eventually reverse for these folks, but hopefully not before it has reached the point where the "fashionables" have noticed it.

So What? More Unrepentant Speculation

If we can harness this idea of symbolic capital, of creating things that the sender thinks could be symbolically profitable, then we might have a better sense of how to get these things to work a little more reliably. Though speculative (why change now?), I think the following conclusions are pretty plausible if we buy the general idea of the post.

1. Cultural artifacts are more spreadable if they honor larger cultural norms and patterns. They have to be initially evaluable by the intended cultural group. Even so-called innovations have to be initially couched in terms that can be understood and evaluated positively by the intended target. For viral marketing this means pay a lot of attention to the target culture. Understand it backwards and forwards, particularly the elements that allow for variation and creativity within normative bounds. I’ll write more about this later.

2. Understand that there has to be space for profit for a cultural artifact to spread. A trendsetter will never jump aboard a trend (or forward a microsite) if he or she doesn’t perceive the potential for symbolic profit. Remember that this potential is couched in terms of point 1. above: surprising yet understandable. It's not about aping the "host" group for there lies the kiss of death: "inauthenticity." It needs to come not from consideration of the group culture, but from within the culture. It's about understanding the space for symbolic profit, for appropriate creativity and difference, inherent in the target culture. And things like consumption capital, arguably a form of cultural capital, create a relatively slim range of potential profitability. More on these points in future posts.

3. Obviously, any given trend, fashion or viral campaign is ultimately unsustainable. We’ve always known this about trends, fashions, fads and viral marketing campaigns, but it bears repeating. The mechanism that drives these things through culture(s), in particular trendsetter preference reversal, tends to eat itself.

4. Wanna-bees, those (trendsetters) who want symbolic capital but haven’t yet accumulated much of it, are better targets of viral campaigns than so-called Influentials. Influentials, those with large accumulations of symbolic capital, are going to be harder to "incentivize" than those who don’t have – but want – symbolic capital. In other words, target the wanna-bees, not the “already-ares.” Influentials are more costly to convert: they’ve less incentive to jump on any particular trend (or forward any particular microsite) because they've already accumulated a large store of symbolic capital and thus each potentially hot trend provides diminishing returns. That is, they're more likely to be conservative and choosy because they require more incentive to forward any given item. And if Duncan Watts is right in claiming that what’s really determinative of epidemics is a connected sub-network of folks with low switching costs then we should target those who are seeking, not those who already have, appreciable symbolic capital. Wanna-bees have lower switching costs (they're looking for the next hot item), probably know many like-minded folks (because of pervasive social effects like homophily) and are eager to gain symbolic capital (and are thus more likely to partake of and spread any viable trend).

So, keep targeting "Influentials", but realize that they’re a harder sell, probably not as effective as the wanna-bees and, if displeased, can actually hurt your campaign. If an Influential decides that you’re “inauthentic” or too eager (issues I’ll discuss in later posts), then you’re dead. That sort of thing will kill the potential for symbolic profit on the part of any hungry wanna-bees, hurting your chances that anyone will spread your whatsit.

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