February 13, 2009
If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Two): Sticky and Spreadable -- Two Paradigms

This is part two of an eight part series. The report was written by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting.

Sticky and Spreadable - Two Paradigms
From Viral to Spreadability
It is not hard to understand why the idea of both memes and the media virus would be attractive to marketers. If the right meme was deployed, theory suggests, it would successfully acquire people, reaching more and more possible consumers as goes. Similarly, Rushkoff's notion of "viral" circulation appeals to advertisers because it allows them to give up control over little more than the specific path of dissemination. In this scenario, they are cast as purposeful agent zeros, unleashing a message that spreads through its own volition, the instructions of replication imbedded in the DNA of the campaign.

But if the rising anxieties over brand equity, appropriation of content, miscommunication, lack of communication, and the ultimate value of viral campaigns is any indication, many advertisers are well aware that this model of "viral" media, which doesn't account for individual or social agency, does not accurately reflect the present media landscape. The idea of the "media virus" breaks down because people are making conscious choices about what media they are passing along and about the forms within which they are circulating it. As we saw in the discussion of the LOLcat meme above, the core message may be manipulated or turned against the original authors as it spreads across the internet. Consumers have shown a remarkable ability to turn advertising slogans and jingles against the companies that originated them. Fans have highjacked popular stories to express profoundly different interpretations than those of their authors.

Metaphors of "viral media" and "memes" emerged during a period of transition in the relationship between consumers and producers: first, this terminology reflected a shift away from the push-based model of the broadcast era towards the pull-based model of the early internet (characterized by talk of "stickiness"); second, the teminology maintained use value as we moved from an era of personalized media towards the increasingly communal practices associated with the rise of social networks and the emergence of what industry guru Tim O'Reilly (2005) identified as "the architecture of participation."

It is somewhat ironic that the idea of the media virus emerged at the same time as a shift towards greater acknowledgment of consumers as participants in meaning making within the networked media space. Shenja van der Graaf, in her 2003 article "Viral Experiences: Do You Trust Your Friends?" maintains "the main feature of viral marketing is that it heavily depends on interconnected peers. Viral Marketing is therefore inherently social" (van der Graaf, 2003, p.8). van der Graaf uses "viral" to describe a condition of movement and distribution of content that is linked to network behavior, and cites participation within a socially networked system as a central requirement of "viral" behavior.

Each step along this process made media companies more dependent upon the active engagement of their consumers and increased the urgency of understanding how and why cultural content circulates. Talk of "memes" and "media viruses" gave a false sense of security at a time when the old attention economy was in flux, resulting in widespread uncertainity about what might motivate consumer "engagement" in this new context. Such terms promised a pseudo-scientific model for thinking about consumer behavior, one which kept power firmly in the hands of media producers. In practice, they simply mystified the process, limiting the industry's ability to understand the complex factors which now shape the creation of value through the circulation of content within these new social networks.

We believe that the confusion wrapped surrounding the concepts of "memes" and "viruses" are not going to be easily resolved. As we have seen, the terms are at once too encompassing and too limiting; they introduce false assumptions about how culture operate; they distort the power relations between producers and consumers at a time when media companies and brands need to learn to respect the increasingly empowered roles which their users are playing in the circulation and production of meaning around their products. Given these limits, these words mislead more than they clarify and need to be retired. To put it bluntly, the viral is not only sick; it's pushing up the daisies.

For that reason, we are proposing an alternative terminology, one which we think allows us to construct a more effective model that might inform future strategies. Rather than speaking about "viral media," we prefer to think of media as spreadable. Spreadability as a concept describes how the properties of the media environment, texts, audiences, and business models work together to enable easy and widespread circulation of mutually meaningful content within a networked culture. Talking about spreadability invites us to ask four basic questions:

  1. What aspects of the contemporary media environment support the spread of media across different communities?

  2. How do consumers create value for themselves and for companies through their spread of media?

  3. What properties of content make it more likely to be spread?

  4. How do companies benefit from the spread of their content?

The concept of "spreadability" preserves much of what was useful about the earlier models -- the idea that the movement of messages from person to person, from community to community, over time increases their effectiveness, and expands their impact. It recognizes the ways that later theorists such as van der Graaf or Knoebel and Lankshear have revised the earliest, relatively static and passive conceptions of "memes" and "viruses" to reflect the realities of the new social web, while suggesting this emerging paradigm is so substantively different from the initial conceptualizations as to require a new terminology. This new "spreadable" model allows us to avoid metaphors of "infection" and "contamination" which over-estimate the power of media companies and underestimate the agency of consumers. In so far as these metaphors distort the actual factors shaping the spread of media content in a networked culture, they result in less than fully effective campaigns. In this emerging model, consumers play an active role in "spreading" content rather than being the passive carriers of viral media: their choices, their investments, their actions determine what gets valued in the new mediascape. Recentering the discussion on choices consumers make, rather than choices media companies make, forces advertising and entertainment companies to pay closer attention to consumer's motivations and thus to design content which better aligns with their interests; it will also allow companies to adopt policies which sustain rather than repress this desire to help circulate relevant material throughout their social networks.

While older models of "memes" and "media viruses" focused attention on how ideas replicate and propagate, a spreadability model assumes that value originates as much through the act of transformation as through direct circulation. Spreadability assumes a world where mass content gets repositioned as it enters into a range of different niche communities. When material is produced according to a one-size-fits-all model, it necessarily imperfectly fits the needs of any given group of consumers. As content spreads, then, it gets remade -- either literally through various forms of sampling and remixing -- or figuratively via its insertion into ongoing conversations and interactions.

Such repurposing doesn't necessarily blunt or distort the goals of the original communicator. Rather, it may allow the message to reach new constituencies where it would otherwise have gone unheard. C3 affiliated researcher Grant McCracken (2005) points towards such a model when he suggests that the word consumer should be replaced by a new term, multiplier, to reflect the fact consumers expand the potential meanings that get attached to a brand by inserting it into a range of unpredicted contexts of use.

There is something in the term that invites us to ask whether the product, brand, innovation, campaign does actually give the "multiplier" anything he can, er, multiply.... Furthermore, "multipiers" also bids us ask, down the road, whether indeed the product, brand, innovation actually produced anything in the world. Did the multipliers multiply it, or is it still just sitting there? Finally, the term multipler may help marketers acknowledge more forthrightly that whether our work is a success is in fact out of our control. All we can do is to invite the multiplier to participate in the construction of the brand by putting it to work for their own purposes in their own world. When we called them "consumers" we could think of our creations as an end game and their responses as an end state. The term "multiplier" or something like it makes it clear that we depend on them to complete the work.
We might compare these brand "multipliers" to "lead users" (Von Hippel, 2006): lead users (Ford, 2006) enable user innovation, helping to find and fix flaws, identify new markets, or model new uses of manufactured goods once they have shipped to market; these "multipliers" perform some of this same work for cultural goods, taking them places and deploying them in ways that would not have been envisioned by the people who produced them. Some of those uses will be tangential to the goals of the media companies; some may generate alternative sources of profit; some may expand the potential audience for entertainment properties or open the brand message to new interpretations and uses.

Consumers in this model are not simply "hosts" or "carriers" of alien ideas, but rather grassroots advocates for materials which are personally and socially meaningful to them. They have filtered out content which they think has little relevance to their community, while focusing attention on material which they think has a special salience in this new context. Spreadability relies on the one true intelligent agent -- the human mind -- to cut through the clutter of a hyper-mediated culture and to facilitate the flow of valuable content across a fragmented marketplace. Under these conditions, media which remains fixed in its location and static in its form fails to generate sufficient public interest and thus drops out of these ongoing conversations.

Spreadable and Sticky -- Two Models of Media Contact

We can understand what we mean by spreadablity by way of a contrast with earlier notions of "stickiness." A review of the top ten hits on Google for "stickiness" offers us a fairly consistent sense of the word's current functional definition. The term "sticky" first and foremost refers to websites which "grab and hold the attention of your visitor" (Meredian, n.d.). Some writers argue that "(customers will) come back and buy more goods, get more advice, and see more ads" (Sanchez, n.d.). Most others measure stickiness in terms of how long the visitor stays on a single visit or how many different pages the visitors looks at in the course of their stay.

Stickiness reflected the assumptions of personalized media: its central unit is the individual consumer. As one writer explains, "Measuring stickiness means that you'll have to track what individuals do, not just mass movements on your site. So you'll have to have them register or place cookies on their computers if you really want to know that much detail." (Nemeth-Johannes, n.d.) And stickiness is associated with pre-structured interactivity rather than open-ended participation with games, quizzes, and polls seen as devices for attracting and holding the interests of consumers.

This emphasis on "stickiness" was closely associated with the ongoing discussion of "push vs. pull" technologies: stickiness reflects anxiety about attracting and holding viewer interest in a world where consumers have to actively seek out the content they desire. Under the stickiness model, value comes either through charging for access to information (through some kind of subscription or service fee), by selling merchandise to consumers through some kind of e-commerce catalog, or by selling the eyeballs of site visitors to some outside party, most often to advertisers.

Sites such as Amazon or eBay represent the triumph of this "stickiness" model -- both sites depend greatly on the return of highly committed and strongly motivated consumers and upon multiple transactions per visit. Yet, even these sites depend on word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers, who more often than not discuss their interactions in other contexts, thus helping "spread" the word to potential visitors. As early as 1996 Amazon launched its highly successful affiliate marketing program, which offers designated 'Associates' as much as ten percent in referral fees for purchases made by visitors they helped to attract to retailer's sites. Consumers are encouraged to link their homepages or blogs back to Amazon, providing incentives for them to help increase their community's awareness of the site's products and services.

This program reflects the core insight that different books would be of interest within different communities, that people were more likely to buy books when they were recommended by people they already trusted in other contexts, and that discussion of books emerged organically in the midst of a range of other conversations and interactions. The Associates program, thus, reflects the value which comes in "spreading" one's message across a range of niche communities rather than seeking simply to attract and hold the attention of site visitors.

Put schematically, we might map nine core distinctions between Stickiness and Spreadability:

  1. Stickiness seeks to attract and hold the attention of site visitors; Spreadability seeks to motivate and facilitate the efforts of fans and enthusiasts to "spread" the word.

  2. Stickiness depends on concentrating the attention of all interested parties on a specific site or through a specific channel; spreadability seeks to expand consumer awareness by dispersing the content across many potential points of contact.

  3. Stickiness depends on creating a unified consumer experience as consumers enter into branded spaces; spreadability depends on creating a diversified experience as brands enter into the spaces where people already live and interact.

  4. Stickiness depends on prestructured interactivity to shape visitor experiences; spreadability relies on open-ended participation as diversely motivated but deeply engaged consumers retrofit content to the contours of different niche communities.

  5. Stickiness typically tracks the migrations of individual consumers within a site; Spreadability maps the flow of ideas through social networks.

  6. Under stickiness, a sales force markets to consumers; under spreadability, grassroots intermediaries become advocates for brands.

  7. Stickiness is a logical outgrowth of the shift from broadcasting's push model to the web's pull model; spreadability restores some aspects of the push model through relying on consumers to circulate the content within their own communities.

  8. Under stickiness, producers, marketers, and consumers are separate and distinct roles; spreadability depends on increased collaboration across and even a blurring of the distinction between these roles.

  9. Stickiness depends on a finite number of channels for communicating with consumers; spreadability takes for granted an almost infinite number of often localized and many times temporary networks through which media content circulates.

In short, for media companies to fully grasp the advantages of spreadability, they have to unlearn the lessons of "stickiness," lessons which may be less effective than they once seemed, as a consequence of the next phase of evolution in the media ecology.

Not surprisingly, many sites today struggle to balance between these two competing models, often resulting in disappointment. Consider, for example, the case of Sonific, an early experiment in adopting the spreadable media model within the music industry. In 2006, Sonific offered 'customizable, flexible, Flash-based music widgets' enabling users to stream one or more songs from the Sonific catalog to almost any webpage. Material from Sonfic's catalog could be included in nearly any web-based application -- from modest blogs to social network pages and slideshows. Users could customize playlists and embed music from the catalog into their sites.

Sonfic offered full-length-tracks as free, promotional streams, operating under the "You hear, you like, you buy," rule proposed by UCE Birmingham Professor Andrew Dubber. By early 2008 Sonific had licensed over 200,000 tracks and had 80,000 users, but as of May 1 the service has closed operations citing unworkable licensing with the major record labels.

It seems that the industry's major stakeholders still prefer this turf to remain unlicensed rather than to allow real-life, workable and market-based solutions to emerge by working with new companies such as Sonific. This is not the way forward.
- Sonific's CEO Gerd Leonhard, 2008.

The service's demise is certainly due, in part at least, to the recording industry's resistance to a spreadable model, a model that would actually encourage music fans to distribute content through decentralized networks. The music industry's anxieties about piracy lead them to want to lock down content rather than encouraging consumers to shape its circulation. All of this suggests a moment of transition: old assumptions are going to be hard to displace. For some industries and for some purposes, the sticky model will maintain even as other sectors of the branded entertainment sector are moving towards a more spreadable model. In the short term, we argue that companies need to know what model they are choosing and why.

The focus on spreadable media requires greater attention be paid to the social relations between media producers and consumers. There are significant differences between what motivates consumers to spread content and what motivates producers to seek the circulation of their brands. These differences can be understood in terms of the contrast between commodity culture and the gift economy.

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Knobel, Michele & Lankshear, Colin (2007). New Literacies: Everyday Practices & Classroom Learning. Open University Press
Leonhard, Gerd. "Sonific Goes Offline on May 1 2008", Sonific.
McCracken, Grant (2005). "'Consumers' or 'Multipliers': A New Language for Marketing?," This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics, November 10.
Meredian Design (n.d.) "Make It Sticky, Make 'Em Stay,"
Nemeth-Johannes, Cindy (n.d.) "Making Sticky Websites," The ABCs of Small Business.
O'Reilly, Tim (2005). "What is Web 2.0?," September 30.
Sanchez, Marcos (n.d.) "Eight Ways to Sticky Sites." Fuse.
van der Graaf, Shenja. "Viral Experiences: Do You Trust Your Friends," (author version), in Sandeep Krishnamurthy (ed.). Contemporary Research in E-Marketing, University of Washington. ed.. Pennsylvania: Idea Publishing, pp.166-185
Von Hippel, Eric (2006). Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge: MIT Press.