Focus on grassroots lacks Miracle-Gro.
This summer, "Weird Al" Yankovic released one music video every day for eight days. The videos were posted to free video sharing sites and proliferated across the Internet, which led to Yankovic's "Mandatory Fun" album quickly reaching the number one spot on Billboard while albums marketed under the industry's standard operating procedure struggled. This marketing tactic would earn high praises from the authors of "Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture," a collaboration between Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green.
Their main premise, repeated a few times throughout the book, is this: "If it doesn't spread, it's dead." If people on the Internet do not share media with their friends, family and followers, then it might as well not exist. Taking their own advice to heart, the authors "expanded" the book with essays published on its website, and each essay has easy links to "spread" it on Facebook and Twitter.
As an analysis of the history of new media and the challenges of adapting to a new marketing model, "Spreadable Media" is an excellent reference and an entertaining read. However, readers hoping to learn the secret to creating "spreadable" media will find themselves disappointed.
The authors' goal is to convince content creators to relinquish some control of their works to allow it to become more spreadable, a term the authors contrast with the marketing concept of "sticky." Sticky content draws people to a particular place, such as the company's website or blog, and holds them there for a period of time.
The problem with content being too sticky, the authors argue, is that it is difficult for users to share. This means it won't spread, and under the authors' central thesis, it is bound to die.
In the process of introducing this new concept of spreadability, the authors propose a ban on terms such as "viral" marketing. They argue that referring to media as viral not only conjures up unpleasant images of illness, but implies the audience is only a passive host. Instead, they urge, audiences must actively share media across a variety of platforms or it languishes unseen. For instance, the authors note that for the video of Susan Boyle's audition for "Britain's Got Talent" to reach more than 77 million views on YouTube, people had to share, comment on, remix and otherwise distribute it to their friends, family and followers.
Once content creators remove some of the stickiness and incorporate shareable elements into their works, the authors say, they can then tap into the vast marketing potential the Internet offers. It's a utopian idea that often runs into hurdles, such as pirating, copyright issues and perceived malfeasance.
The authors apply their thesis not only to new forms of media such as the cat videos that are almost a mascot for the Internet, but to older forms of media as well. For example, they say World Wrestling Entertainment became a juggernaut because of fans making and sharing VHS tapes from their local wrestling events with other fans around the country. The authors argue that because of this sharing, which other producers might have tried to quash, fans built up loyalty and were willing to pay to attend events or watch Pay Per View specials.
In this way, the book argues, spreadable culture is a sort of gift economy where trust is built between marketers, artists and fans. Fans are happy to put work into spreading the word about their favorite media, but get disgruntled when corporations get too litigious with copyright violators or appear to be profiting off fan-generated works without giving proper acknowledgement. At the same time, corporations are happy to allow fans to use their copyrighted materials, provided the fan-generated material increases audience numbers, thus increasing profit.
The authors highlight the tenuous nature of this gift economy with some examples of marketers planting material that is supposedly fan-generated, known as "astroturfing." For instance, the book mentions the "All I Want for Xmas is a PSP" video, which featured two teenagers trying to persuade their parents to buy them a Sony PSP. When gamers discovered the video was created by Sony's ad agency, they felt disrespected and betrayed. The authors also discuss the problems with the "free economy" notion that some users have of the Internet, resulting in works being pirated or otherwise ignored because of an unwillingness to pay. In either case, trust erodes and the gift economy breaks down.
The seven-chapter book doesn't broach the topic of how to imbue media with spreadabilty until chapter five, and even then the authors acknowledge that no one really knows why some content becomes popular while the rest flounders. To counteract this "uncertainty principle," the authors say successful online marketers should simply overproduce content. With that in mind, they offer some vague overarching guidelines, such as making content "portable" and "relevant to multiple audiences." The real value in this chapter is not its advice, but the interesting case studies the authors discuss.
The same can be said of the book as a whole. It's a compelling read for those with a particular interest in new-media history and culture. But for those looking for concrete ways to improve their own online strategies, however, "Spreadable Media" is the wrong book.