Several years ago I attended a captivating presentation which the speaker opened, unexpectedly, with a detailed discussion of bacteria. As it was intended to be a business seminar, not a biology lesson, most of us sat uncomfortably wondering if we were in the wrong room.
At the end of his prepared remarks, however, the presenter drew a clear and direct connection for his baffled listeners. Businesses, he argued, should act like bacteria. Where adaptability was not only a source of strength but the key to survival, they must evolve to expand.
It was a provocative and persuasive theory, one that has greatly impacted how I now think about innovation. It also transformed my thinking about communications at a time when the success of messaging and marketing campaigns is measured by whether they go ‘viral’.
Others are far better qualified to appreciate or explain the biological differences between bacteria and viruses, and I certainly don’t pretend to be a doctor. Yet, the absence of medical training in no way diminishes the power of the metaphor or its underlying theory.
An iron-clad rule of communications has long been that we should choose a single, simple message and deliver it repeatedly through multiple channels. The logic being that a constant drumbeat was the best way to ensure that it was heard by the widest possible audience.
Each of us has almost certainly been told that we should continue to repeat a message even after we’re absolutely sick of it: The hundredth time we say it could be the first time someone else has heard it. In essence, repeating a message was the way to ensure it was received.
The challenge with this approach is that it is better suited to the industrial age not the information era. Traditional communications strategies may offer continuity, consistency, and certainty, but they sacrifice variety, flexibility, spontaneity, novelty, and creativity.
When you think of the types of advertising campaigns or generic content that go ‘viral’ – that are circulated widely within short timeframes – they are often the most quixotic, random, unexpected, and, even, questionable efforts. Rarely are they the safe or sure bet.
Indeed, most of us could easily identify a recent marketing campaign or corporate message that has failed to resonate with its target audience notwithstanding the fact that it relied heavily on so-called ‘tried and true’ imagery, language, psychology, or celebrity.
Because ‘viral’ campaigns can involve bold experimentation, they are rarely the only message or marketing initiative put in the field. They are often used at the same time or alongside a more basic campaign. This means they can be seen as secondary or optional.
In the past, the main attraction of focusing on a single, safe message was the higher costs of developing and disseminating different messages. Moreover, the most prudent course was to test messages with small groups before going with only the highest rated.
Today, however, we have the capacity to deliver virtually unlimited amounts of creative content at a fraction of the cost. Disruptive advances in technology and social media allow us to tailor messaging and share it directly with specifically targeted audiences.
If the affordability is no longer an issue, what, then, is the greatest barrier to adopting a ‘bacterial’ or ‘viral’ approach to communications? The answer, in short, is those responsible are unwilling to cede control – they are risk-averse and reluctant to change.
I have often been struck by the fact that people who get impatient waiting for next year’s next generation iPhone or car model can be among the loudest critics of rapid, frequent changes to communications strategies in their own businesses organizations.
Tech companies are particularly adept at upgrading, enhancing, or improving their products, releasing new versions, updates, or options at a dizzying pace. Few consumers ever question this approach, or judge it as a sign of weakness or strategic failure.
Yet, some of those same audiences will express a strong preference for sticking with their own messages or marketing campaign long after they show signs of diminishing returns. It’s almost as though they see changing the message as admitting a mistake.
To be clear, none of this is to suggest that companies should try to use conflicting or contradictory messages. As with bacteria and viruses, the evolution of a communications strategy should be a Darwinian process of multiplying and mutating from a common strain.
This ‘survival of the fittest’ approach to communications means putting into the field various types of messages and quickly killing off those that don’t connect with target audiences. It also means quickly improving those that do work to make them even stronger.
As with the spread of diseases, it can be difficult to predict with any precision how a viral marketing campaign or message will evolve. But, remember, the very reason why viral or bacterial communications work so well is because they are infectious.