So let’s start by understanding WHY we cannot simply apply tested-and-true marketing techniques to this new opinion forming mechanism.
The main reason lies in the fact that we are dealing with self-assembled and self-regulated groups whose behaviour obey what anthropologists call the “Rules of the Pack”.
Every Pack has a precise hierarchy determined by means of criteria established by the Pack, and accepted by its members upon entering it; this hierarchy allows the Pack to behave in ways so complex that they may seem intelligent (e.g. the hunting strategy of lions, or the flying formation of migratory birds).
The status of f each member within this hierarchical system is decided by the other members and only by them. It is this sort of self-referential coherence which I find particularly interesting for marketeers.
If this self-referential coherence is the defining factor of a Pack, we can easily extend this definition to behaviours which are typical of classes of totally “normal” people such as professionals (lawyers or doctors only respect other lawyers or doctors), experts and specialists, as well as alumni of prestigious universities all the way to practitioners of any recreational activity.
Which biker would respect the opinions of those riding scooters? Even better, would someone riding a Ducati care for what an Harley owner thinks?
These are the basic principles of the so-called niche marketing, the promotional strategy which segments the target population in small homogeneous groups, looking for the more profitable ones.
How it’s formed, by whom it is influenced
Let’s go back to the mechanism through which opinions are formed within the Pack; the figure below illustrates the two types of contributions which can hit each Pack member: on the left we have the contribution coming from outside the Pack while on the right hand side we have interactions exchanged within the Pack itself. We called “Marketing” the first type, and “WoM” (for Word Of Mouth) the second one.
As we discussed above, the two contributions do not carry the same weight for Pack members, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s ignore this; anybody remembering a little math knows that, given a population of N, the number of Marketing interactions that are possible is N (linear), while the WoM type is N/2*(N-1) (quadratic).
The bottom line is that the more the Pack grows in membership, the smaller the proportion of interaction we can control (Marketing): in a Pack with 4 members, Marketing represents 40% of all interactions (4 on 10), but in a 20-strong Pack this share is already less than 10% and is less than 2% for a Pack with a hundred members.
This is not really surprising: a tightly group, such as a family, is much more difficult to penetrate through advertising than a group of loosely connected individuals with little contact with the outside world, such as rural populations.
This scheme, however, is too coarse to be of any usefulness: the mere possibility of contacting other Pack members does not really mean we do contact all of them: even for an important decision such as the purchase of a car or a house we seek the advice of some friends but surely not everybody we know; in other words, we need to consider a sort of Real WoM interactions (those who really happen) which is lower than the theoretical maximum we described above.
We can therefore conclude that our marketing budget buys us the ability to influence only a share of the total opinion-forming interactions which happen in a Pack, and there is a threshold for this share below which our marketing spend is ineffective. We must now ask ourselves whether the widespread adoption of the Internet has introduced a Pack mentality also in otherwise marketing-driven segments.
The role of the Internet
Let’s go back to our bikers: in the past, their social infrastructure was based on periodical gatherings, while today any biker club has an Internet site which helps members to stay in contact with each other between IRL meetings; a very good example of this is www.fuoristrada.it where thousands of off-raod lovers exchange opinions, discuss, compare their experiences, learn from each other.
A few hours on the site’s Forum are enough to understand how solid is the reputation of some members: their knowledge and experience bestows on them a true guru-like status, and their opinion carries more weight to the eyes of the club members than any specialized journalist.
Internet therefore contributes to the Pack life in two ways: on one hand, it enlarges enormously the potential Pack population – from the off-road nuts in your city, to the mud lovers from Sicily to Val d’Aosta; on the other hand, it makes contact between members much more continuous: instead of maybe three or four gatherings in a year (or in addition to) members can have multiple daily conversations with tens of other Pack members.
Summing it up, our Pack becomes more intelligent because it becomes self-aware, allowing it to decide upon objectives beyond mere survival. E.g. it can decide to harness its collective programming prowess to write a complex software program: Eric Raymond, in his famous essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar described this as the very process which gave birth to fetchmail, one of the most widely used email programs.