Seth Godin: What Makes An Idea Go Viral? Entrepreneur and blogger Seth Godin describes how the marketing of ideas has changed since the invention of sliced bread, as well as the type of ideas that stick in consumer's minds.
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What Makes An Idea Go Viral?

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What Makes An Idea Go Viral?

What Makes An Idea Go Viral?

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SETH GODIN: Hello, it's Seth.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK, Seth. Thank you for joining us. First, can you introduce yourself, please?

GODIN: My name is Seth Godin. I'm an author, a blogger and sometimes an entrepreneur.

RAZ: Some people, like, call you a - like, a kind of a Yoda of marketing.

GODIN: Well, I hope I'm better looking than Yoda, but - I'm really interested in people who have something to say, a change they want to make and can't figure out why they can't make it spread.

RAZ: Seth's written and blogged so much about marketing that if you Googled the word - just the word Seth, he comes up as the first hit. So it's safe to say he kind of knows what he's doing, right? Except that even with all of his expertise, Seth will be the first to tell you that getting an idea to spread is not an exact science. There are tricks you can try of course, but they won't always work. And, as he explained on the TED stage, even the greatest idea of all time - it almost fell apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GODIN: I got to tell you about sliced bread. Now, before sliced bread was invented in the 1910's, I wonder what they said? Like, the greatest invention since the telegraph or something? But the thing about the invention of sliced bread is this - that for the first 15 years after sliced bread was available, no one bought it, no one knew about it. It was a complete and total failure. And the reason is that until Wonder came along and figured out how to spread the idea of sliced bread, no one wanted it. That the success of sliced bread is not always about what the patent is like or what the factory is like, it's about can you get your idea to spread or not? And it doesn't matter to me whether you're running a coffee shop or you're an intellectual or you're in business or flying hot air balloons. People who can spread ideas, regardless of what those ideas are, win. But consumers, they got way more choices than they used to and way less time. And in a world where we have too many choices and too little time, the obvious thing to do is just ignore stuff. And my parable here is, you're driving down the road and you see a cow, and you keep driving 'cause you've seen cows before. Cows are invisible. Cows are boring. Who's going to stop and pull over and say, oh, look, a cow? Nobody.

(LAUGHTER)

GODIN: But if the cow is purple, you'd notice it, OK? The thing that's going to decide what gets talked about, what gets done, what gets changed, what gets purchased, what gets built is, is it remarkable? And remarkable's a really cool word 'cause we think it just means neat, but it also means worth making a remark about, and that is the essence of where idea diffusion is going.

RAZ: OK so how do you translate remarkable into an idea that spreads? When we come back, Seth Godin with some secrets that sell blenders, hot sauce and a billion cups of coffee. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, how things spread - how ideas, emotions, behaviors, diseases, spread from one person to another. And just a minute ago, we were hearing from Seth Godin. He's kind of like the Yoda of marketing, and he says that whatever you're trying to spread - whether it's an idea or a brand or whatever it is - those things spread faster when the people you know and like talk about them.

GODIN: When you think about Uber and Airbnb and the other companies that are turning things upside down, Uber isn't big 'cause they ran a lot of ads. They're big because someone took out their iPhone and said to their friend, watch this, and pressed a button and a car pulled up.

RAZ: This is exactly how I feel about my Vitamix. I talk about it with friends all the time. You know what those are, right?

GODIN: Of course. I had my breakfast from a Vitamix today.

RAZ: They're amazing, aren't they? I talk about it all the time.

GODIN: So the blender story is an interesting one. A few years ago, a guy took over a company called Blendtec, which was Vitamix's competitor. So what Blendtec started to do...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

TOM DICKSON: But will it blend?

GODIN: ...Was take things that should not be in a blender...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

DICKSON: Let's find out.

GODIN: ...Like an iPhone, and blend it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDER BLENDING IPHONE)

GODIN: They did a series of videos called "Will It Blend?"

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

DICKSON: We are going to blend cubic zirconia, imitation diamonds.

Today we're going to blend 40 pens.

There's a half a chicken.

Mascara.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDER BLENDING MASCARA)

DICKSON: Eyeliner.

And then my DVD remote control. Let's push the smoothie button.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDER BLENDING REMOTE CONTROL)

GODIN: Those commercials are super powerful not because he stood up and said, want to see my blender? But, he said, if you show your friends this, they will start to appreciate your sense of humor. So by giving people a tool that they can share and benefit from, it's a form of media that isn't controlled by Rupert Murdoch or the guys at Viacom. It is a form of media that is earned every single time it spreads.

RAZ: So what happened to Blendtec?

GODIN: Oh, they sold a lot of blenders. I have one at home as well. And if I ever, you know, need to blend a hockey puck or a bunch of pencils, it's my go-to.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GODIN: What marketers used to do is make average products for average people. That's what mass marketing is. They would ignore the geeks, and - God forbid - the laggards. It was all about going for the center. I don't think that's the strategy we want to use anymore. Instead, you have to find a group that really desperately cares about what it is you have to say. Talk to them. They have something I call otaku. It's a great Japanese word. It describes the desire of someone who's obsessed to, say, drive across Tokyo to try a new Ramen noodle place 'cause that's what they do, they get obsessed with it. To make a product, to market an idea, to come up with any problem you want to solve that doesn't have a constituency within otaku is almost impossible. There's a hot sauce otaku, but there's no mustard otaku. That's why there's lots and lots and lots of kinds of hot sauces and not so many kinds of mustard. Not 'cause it's hard to make interesting mustard - you can make interesting mustard. But people don't because no one's obsessed with it, and thus no one tells their friends.

RAZ: Is the person or the product with the loudest voice - is the idea that is most amplified, is that - are those the ones that spread?

GODIN: Sometimes. I think it depends on the segment and I think it depends on the stakes. You have to pay the price to be in the right place at the right time often enough that people tend to see you as the regular kind. So if I look at Starbucks, Howard Schultz has made many brilliant decisions, and one of the things that they did was they invented the third space. It's not work, it's not home. That's one of the engines of its spread. But at the same time he was doing that, he bet the farm to open more and more stores in any given town, and making it ubiquitous made it much easier to say to your friend, I'll meet you at Starbucks.

RAZ: But other people have tried that, right? Like, there must be a graveyard of businesses in which there was this idea that community would be the center of it and that's what would attract people, and those didn't work.

GODIN: Bingo. We're better in the rearview mirror than we are at predicting - 'cause you're never going to be right every time. You can handicap it. You can point to certain elements that make it work, and many of those elements come straight out of epidemiology, right? That the horrible Zika virus or HIV, we can look at what it means to be patient zero, what it means to need not much contact to spread, and all of those things follow into the way ideas spread.

RAZ: So you can do that, you can compare the spread of disease to the spread of ideas?

GODIN: Oh, I'm sure of it. You know, if I look at an auditorium full of high school students and the big man on campus and his girlfriend are busy talking while the lecture's going on, the rest of the room is going to do it because they're powerful sneezers. They have influence. They reach out to a whole bunch of people in a way that makes the idea of being disrespectful spread. Or, if I take that same auditorium and I make it much bigger and put more space between seats, it'll be quieter because it's much harder when you're not in physical contact with people to spread a virus from person-to-person, right? There are all sorts of patterns that we see in epidemiology that help us understand why something spreads.

RAZ: Seth Godin. He is the author of "Purple Cow" and many other books on marketing. You can see all of his TED talks at ted.com.

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