Dan Zarrella is a Boston-based marketer with strong skills in programming, research and social media marketing. He is known for creating widely-used social media tools and for his scientific approach to marketing. Not satisfied with merely publishing his own opinions and thoughts, Dan is driven to demystify the exciting-but-hazy world of viral marketing with research and provable facts. He also wants to make life easier for future generations of marketers by developing re-usable software tools and process frameworks.
What do you do for work? And for fun?
“I just started a new job at a company in Cambridge called Hubspot. They’re an inbound marketing software company, and I’m a marketing manager there. For fun, I’m really into social media stuff – Twitter, my blog, etc.”
Dan partying in Boston with Alison Driscol @alisond (left) and her friend.
You describe yourself as a ‘viral marketing scientist.’ Which aspects of viral marketing are difficult to research and investigate?
“I think when you start getting into the motivation of what makes people want to spread something, that’s where it get tricky. I can study analytically things like: what sort of content spreads, what times, who spreads it… but to try to get into the ‘why‘ people spread something or their emotional motivations – that’s a little more difficult. I did a survey last year that was sort of a broad ‘content sharing on the web’ kind of thing, and I found that a lot of people don’t know ‘why‘ they do stuff online…”
There’s this mystique about viral marketing – that it’s difficult, dangerous or unreliable. Can an average person, company or agency realistically be successful at it?
“The first thing people have to understand is that you can’t guarantee results with each individual campaign. It’s like a raffle – if you buy ten tickets (or you do ten campaigns) – one of them or a few of them are more likely to go viral. There are some risks associated with it… The trick to avoid the risk is to be very transparent about what you’re doing. Don’t try to hide the fact that you’re marketing – people will find out – and that can cause bigger problems…
Unraveling the mystery of what makes an idea go viral. image: MC =).
The goal of my research is to breakdown ‘what makes things go viral‘ so that marketers can implement that – so they’ll have a framework for working on things. They’ll know what kind of things they can put into their campaigns to make them go viral. Outside of the scientific work that I’m doing – and a couple other people do – viral marketing is this ‘rockstar’ thing where someone comes up with a crazy idea – and I’m trying to break it down into a more viable science.
In addition to my scientific work, I’ve been reading a lot of academic papers and books about pre-Web forms of viral marketing – content that spreads: like gossip, legends and rumors. I’m looking forward to publishing a book at some point.”
How important is an understanding of psychology or sociology?
Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.
“I don’t have a formal background in either of those two fields – the knowledge I have comes from studying things like how rumors and gossip spread. I do think stuff like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is important to understanding what people need and how you can give them what they need. And from sociology: economic theory and game theory – the ideas behind things like informational cascades and social proof is very important.”
You do a lot of reading. What are the most essential works that influenced your career?
“The book that started me down this path is actually a work of fiction: Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson. The villain in the book constructs a mental ‘mind virus’ that he infects the world with… and the bad guys do nefarious things with it. That book opened my eyes to what viral marketing could be if it were expanded to a science.
For academic stuff, I like JSTOR – which I can use with my Boston Public Library card. Access to that database has been really key for me to understanding very specific things like psychology and sociology… Also, all the work on memetics – not even necessarily The Selfish Gene, which was Richard Dawkins’ book that introduced the concept of the meme – but more like Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine – which I think is the seminal work on memetics.”
You’ve made some successful tools (i.e.,Tweetbacks) to extend Twitter’s reach and functionality. What could be improved with Twitter?
“The big architectural issue with Tweetbacks, my platform to integrate Twitter comments into WordPress blogs and encourage ReTweeting, is that most people are tweeting shortened URLs – and there’s no easy way to expand these shortened URLs into long ones. I’ve had to do some hackish things to make that work.
At a Twitter level, what I wish they’d do is: if a Tweet has a shortened link in it, then expand that out to the full URL – and then publish the full URL in the API. This would really help understand and sort what links people are sharing on Twitter – and it would take the Tweetbacks concept to a new and much more powerful level.”
I was on IRC in the 90s and I thought it was more advanced and useful than Twitter, in some ways. Is Twitter kind of messy or noisy – or do you like it how it is?
“I like Twitter the way it is. The way they built it seems to be: if you want to start filtering it and breaking things down into groups – they give you API access and there’s a lot of things that allow you to do that. I use Tweetdeck, which allows me to have searches and columns. I’m not even following most of the people I talk to on a daily basis – but I have searches set up so that if someone talks about my interests, I’m gonna see it.
I think that as more people get into things like Twitter, the client tools will definitely have to improve. As long as social media sites maintain an open infrastructure, I’m sure there will be developers building solutions for what people need. Everyone doesn’t use these tools the same way – and having the innovation at the client level gives everyone a chance to find something that works the way they want it to.”
How will things change when mainstream society and all the Fortune 500 companies and political movements fully embrace social media?
“I definitely think that more businesses will start to engage in social media – and there is the possibility that some of these agencies or brands will start to do inauthentic and spammy things. The difference is: prior to the web, they used to get away with stuff like that – because people didn’t have a peer-to-peer media to allow them to talk with the same reach that big corporation had. So I think that as corporations try and get into social media, if they do things wrong, they will get caught. The market is always going to be a little bit smarter and faster than you are. Trying to trick it will never work for any long-term period.”
Is there anything you personally find cliche, annoying or lame about the Twitter / Web 2.0 culture?
“Um, I don’t know if I find things ‘lame’ or ‘cliche.’ Maybe I find that they’re ‘not for me.’ Social media has the tendency to attract certain personalities. There are Paris Hilton types in social media — people who are famous only for being famous. That’s something I’m not a huge, huge fan of.”
Who is a cutting-edge thinker that you follow closely?
“The one big guy who has been very influential to my work on Twitter is Hugh McCloud (@gapingvoid). He has a very different approach, his is much less scientific… but he has a very strong ability to put his finger on things – and be right about them. I really wish I was that creative – I feel like I have more of an analytical mind.
Cartoonist Hugh McCloud @ www.gapingvoid.com
There are a lot of people where I follow some of their work, but maybe not all of their work. I follow 1,000 people on Twitter – but I don’t need followers so I don’t follow people whose content I don’t want.”
What are some of your marketing goals?
“Publishing a book is one of my long-term goals for quite a while now – doing the homework and the research, putting myself in the place where I can write a book. Beyond that, I’d like to have a framework that people who do viral marketing will find useful. Maybe a site where they can have a framework and set of tools that are repeatable and useful – to take some of the “rockstar” and mystique out of viral marketing. But I don’t know if there is a platform-agnostic toolset to do a lot of that stuff (i.e., something that’ll work equally well on Twitter, Digg, etc.)
Also in a more theoretical fashion, like in Design Thinking by David Kelly at Ideo, would be a way of thinking about things: Here’s what I want to spread. Here’s the first thing to do. Here’s the next step.
So a little bit shorter term, a few months out – an actual toolset to help people get retweeted more on Twitter, specifically – is around the corner.
It’s not an easy problem to solve, so I’m working on a lot of different avenues to tackle it: The content of the tweet has to be optimized for re-tweetability, there’s timing concerns, influence – e.g., who needs to tweet it so it’ll get retweeted eventually – but I think it’s a do-able tool.”
Dan polishing off a pint after speaking at PubCon ’08 – Vegas.
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