Plausible promises and the critical mass

A post on Advertising Lab got my attention today. It’s a recently de-classified ‘rumour manual’ from 1943. And it’s directives and ideas seem to eerily echo (or perhaps just be interestingly relevant) to the modus operandi of today’s social media strategies.

Go check it out, it’s worth a read.

This military connection to what I do isn’t entirely new to me though. As I read through John Robb’s ‘Brave New War’ I was constantly drawn to the parallels between modern warfare and marketing (to the point that in some ways, you can see the future of marketing in war). I briefly mentioned this a while back in ‘Dark Blue Swans‘, but there’s a couple key paragraphs from the book that I thought were worth putting up here. I’ve always planned on putting together some form of thinking around them and making a nice cohesive point, but figure I’ll never get around to it. So here they are, with minimal commentary…

“The promise is the central connection between all the members in the community. Each member can have specific motivations that are substantially different from any of the others. In the case of warfare, these alternative motivations can be patriotism, hatred of occupation, ethnic bigotry, religious fervor, tribal loyalty, or what have you. It doesn’t matter as long as they agree with the plausible promise.”

I love this idea of a plausible promise. And I can’t help but think it’s an idea that’s somewhat foreign to marketing and advertising. Throughout warfare there’s always been a plausible promise. For a Trojan army of 30,000 it was a singular belief that they all understood and believed, and now for guerilla movements it’s a singular belief that can be fragmented into many different exegeses.

When it comes to marketing, I’m not sure that the promise (or single minded proposition or point of difference or whatever you need to call it) was ever that plausible. But it didn’t seem to matter. You shouted at people telling them your detergent gave the whitest whites, or your razor gave the closest shave, and the consumer bought it.

Now the market is fragmented and connected. Your plausible promise needs to not only be true, but it needs to be applicable to a range of market fragments. If it’s not true, the connected consumer will soon find out. And if it’s not applicable to diverse fragments, you won’t get the critical mass of communication that you need.

“A critical mass of participation is necessary. A certain minimum number of participants, either individuals or component groups, are necessary for microaction to translate into macroaction. It also means that without a minimum number of interactions between these participants, the statistical nature of macrointelligence won’t emerge. The simple catchphrase for this is more is different.”

This understanding of critical mass is hugely important, and up to now usually ignored. We’re guilty of creating niche campaigns that are designed to spread through social networks, but are only targetting a thin slice of a total market while completely ignoring the rest of the relevant slices.

If you can create a plausible promise that is applicable to a mass of fragments, you can gain a critical mass that will amplify your communication massively. It doesn’t matter if the interperatation of the promise varies slightly, if you have ten groups all spreading the same core promise in their own way, you will have something that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

In the case of warfare you’re talking macrointelligence, but in the case of advertising you’re talking macroawareness. And even though the digital marketing landscape might be about focusing on a more and more fragmented audience, it’s hard to ignore the power that this type of macroawareness could have.

- December 2009