February 27, 2009
If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Eight): The Value of Spreadable Media

This is part eight 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.

Conclusion: The Value of Spreadable Media

So far this white paper has:

  • criticized the vagueness of existing models of "viral media" or "memes"

  • outlined the differences between sticky and spreadable media.

  • identified those factors which have led to the rise of spreadable media

  • shown why spreadable media involves a collaboration between the gift economy and commodity culture.

  • discussed a range of different kinds of communities that are shaping the spread of media

  • pointed towards some properties shared by the most spreadable media content.

In this concluding section, we will return to the core question from the perspective of our clients: Is it a good idea to allow or enable my consumers to spread my brand message or my copyrighted content? We enter this discussion with some modesty. The situation we have described here is in flux. New examples of spreadable content, new business plans, and new policies regarding intellectual property are announced each day and so far, the verdict is still out. There's a lot we do not yet know about spreadable media's benefits and risks from a corporate perspective. In this transitional moment, we advise companies to proceed with caution but fear that those who remain totally outside this space may be running greater risks than those who make at least some modest steps towards embracing spreadability.

Certainly, one can point to some great success stories from companies who have been early to embrace this spreadable model. One such case is the Dove Evolution campaign that was released online with a 75 second clip showing an "ordinary" woman's painful transformation into an "object of desire". The ad boosted sales, received over 5 million views and cost nothing to distribute online. Dove also released another version of the spot on television during the Super bowl. Placing the ad cost the company $2.5 million and it received 2.5 million views. Granted, broadcast television provided them with an opportunity to reach a large number of viewers in a very short period of time, but the online version reached almost twice as many people at a fraction of the cost. One take-away here is that television may remain a stronger venue for "just in time" information, while the slower circulation of information online may ultimately result in much deeper saturation within the culture.

Or consider the success of the Cadbury Gorilla advertisement which we've cited several times already. In 8 weeks the ad received 5 million views, positioning Cadbury to grow 30% above the industry average that same year, increase it's sales by 7% and most importantly, detach itself from the chocolate recall-salmonella scandal that had greatly impacted the company's image in the UK.

Such success stories have inspired other companies to develop so-called "viral" marketing strategies, some of which have succeeded, many of which have not. The decentralized nature of the process, the lack of control over the flow of content means that there are no guarantees that such content will reach their desired market segments or for that matter, that they will circulate anywhere. If you want to guarantee the number of eyeballs which consume your message, nothing is going to replace traditional broadcasting methods anytime soon. Lowering the transaction costs, however, make it possible for companies to minimize their risks in trying out such strategies as an add-on to existing marketing approaches.

So what is spreadable media good for?

  • To generate active commitment from the audience,

  • To empower them and make them an integral part of your product's success,

  • To benefit from online word-of-mouth

  • To reach niche, highly interconnected audiences,

  • but most of all, to communicate with audiences where they already are, and in a way that they value.

Each of these factors suggest that such an approach may yield longer term rather than shorter term benefits:

  • Spreadability may help to expand and intensify consumer awareness of a new and emerging brand or transform their perceptions of an existing brand, re-affirming its central place in their lives.

  • Spreadability may expand the range of potential markets for a brand by introducing it, at low costs and low risks, to niches that previously were not part of its market.

  • Spreadability may intensify consumer loyalty by increasing emotional attachment to the brand or media franchise.

  • Spreadability may expand the shelf life of existing media content by creating new ways of interacting with it (as occurs, say, around the modding of games or the archiving of classic television content on YouTube) and it may even rebuild or reshape the market for a dormant brand, as suggested by Robert Kozinets writing on "retro-brands."

All told, those companies which have the most to gain from this approach are those who have the least to lose from abandoning traditional broadcasting models, those which have:

  • lower promotional budgets

  • who want to reach niche markets

  • who want to distribute so-called "Long Tail" content

  • who want to build strong emotional connections with their consumers.

Those who have the most to lose are those companies which:

  • have well established brand messages

  • have messages that are predictably delivered through broadcast channels

  • who are concerned about a loss of control over their intellectual property

  • who have reason to fear backlash from their consumers.

Even here, remaining outside of the spreadable model altogether may cut them off from younger and more digitally connected consumers who spend less time consuming traditional broadcast content or who are increasingly suspicious of top-down advertising campaigns.

Such considerations intensify when we move from brand messages, which one wants to circulate freely, towards content, which is expected to generate revenue. Right now, spreadability has proven more effective at generating buzz and awareness than as a revenue generator, though this may be changing. Consider, for example, the mobile sector. As many as 20 percent of mobile subscribers are listening to music on their mobile devices (Minney, 2008) with similar increases occurring with other media such as games and video. There is also a strong rise in mobile media sharing, either directly phone-to-phone or pc-to-phone, in either case mobile consumers are already embracing spreadable media by default and companies are discovering that there is money to be made by facilitating their activities.

So far, only a few companies are taking advantage of a potential Mobile Web 2.0, according to Sumit Agarwal, a product manager in Google's mobile division:

We're really at mobile Web 0.5, to be completely honest, the real thing about Web 2.0 is people introducing applications to each other. True viral applications, something sent from one person to another, will absolutely be a big part of mobile. (Salz, 2007)

One such company, MoConDi Ltd. announced in September of 2007 that its Italian based service, MeYou, had reached more than 800,000 registered users. By January 2008, that number had doubled. MeYou is a mobile phone application which supports distribution of a mobile content to end users. These users can then recommend content to additional users and receive credits for doing so. Users receive MMS recommendations which contain a message and download link for the content and a link to install the MeYou application. In this case, they are using the same marketing strategy that launched Hotmail in the 90s.

MeYou has implemented a hybrid model between the sticky and spreadable models, between content distribution and marketing. As such, users will receive certain content directly from MeYou or from their friends for free, but other content requires for direct payment. Users can still share such by sending the application for which the receiver has to then purchase the activation code. This model is particularly successful with games where after the applications are activated, users can play against each other, creating strong social incentives to expand its reach. MeYou works mostly with ringtones, images, videos, animations and games. Through its parent company, MoConDi generate mobile branded content and distribution strategies for other businesses. According to MeYou's public information 60% of users purchase content and 64% of users send recommendations with 24% of recommendations resulting in purchases.

We might contrast the relative success which MoConDi has enjoyed through enfranchising its consumers to spread content with the backlash which has come as a result of the tendency of major media companies to brand grassroots circulation as "piracy." For quite some time, Sony-BMG and all other music majors have opted for issuing take-down notices when content to which they hold rights to is posted on YouTube. It now seems that Sony-BMG is finding a way to move away from that prohibitionist model and is embracing a profit sharing, win-win philosophy based on building stronger collaborations with their fans. They have opted for inserting a link to the content's original site on the video post and eliminating its capacity to be embedded. So, on one end they've limited the spread of their content in favor of increasing the stickiness of their own site. But they also are allowing fans to share music and YouTube to make a profit. In the process, Sony-BMG is increasing the traffic to and visibility of its official sites, but most importantly, the company is no longer treating fans and potential consumers as criminals.

Such an approach is spreading across other industries and throughout other mediums. Peer-to-peer technologies have dealt with a bad reputation for years -- since the days of the Napster trials, P2P's original idea, to enable user share big files, has been demonized. The entertainment industry has pegged it as a tool for piracy. And recently, ISPs have blamed it for clogging their networks. Nevertheless P2P is the perfect example to illustrate some of the models of resource-lite, user-led, pull distribution that benefit from a spreadable mentality. Here company and user/distributors are building a completely new relationship where the company trusts the user with the safekeeping of its content. In spite of the bad reputation and lack of control, the same entertainment industry that one day attacked it, has now found, both in the bit torrent technology and in P2P, a powerful ally. NBC is working with Pando Networks, a P2P content-delivery-technology company, to revamp its NBC Direct service (Weprin, 2008). BBC and Showtime, amongst others, are now working with the bit torrent distribution platform Vuze. And Fox, Lions Gate and MTV are all working with the original BitTorrent company.

Media scholar Mark Pesce (2005) argues that many mainstream British and American television series are enjoying commercial success in international markets because -- and not in spite of -- their massive online circulations. Pesce argues that illegal downloads helped to promote the content, closing the temporal gap between domestic and foreign distribution, and increasing consumer interest. Pesce argues that what he calls Hyperdistribution is here to stay.

The clock can't be turned back, BitTorrent can't be un-invented. We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be. In the new, "flat world," where any programme produced anywhere in the world is immediately available everywhere in the world, the only sustainable edge comes from entrepreneurship and innovation.

Pesce's plea for innovation is made that more urgent by the fact that, according to a study performed in 17 countries, 29% of active technology users regularly write comments and blogs, 27% share free music and 28% access social networking sites.

Clearly, a significant portion of the public is embracing those technologies and cultural practices which support spreadable media. They want to play active roles in helping to shape the flow of media within their own social communities. This is part of what Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff are calling the "groundswell", which is being fueled by the combined force of "people's desires to connect, new interactive technologies and online economics". They describe the groundswell as a movement that can't be stopped but must be joined in order to retain currency. It has changed the power relation between companies and consumers, and, in embracing the groundswell and the spreadable media model, companies are also redefining their relationships and their sense of self. This is might be a painful process, but at the end there will be more to be gained than lost. By ceding this power to its consumers companies are loosing much of the control over their distribution, but they are gaining the value of each user's personal ties.

We may not yet have reached the point where "If it doesn't spread, it's dead," but that time is coming and companies need to be rethinking their business models now in anticipation of these shifts which will even more fundamentally alter the media landscape.


Minney, Jaimee (2008). "M:Metrics Reports Growth in Mobile Music Adoption" m:metrics

Pesce, Mark. (2005). "Piracy is Good? How Battlestar Galactica killed Broadcast TV", Mindjack, May 13.

Salz, Peggy Anne (2006). "Mobile Web 2.0 May Be Too Ambitious, Let's Call It Mobile 0.5" MocoNews

Weprin, Alex (2008) "NBC Revamping Fledgling NBC Direct with Pando Networks Deal", Broadcasting &
, February 27.

Whew! That's it folks! This is very much a work in progress -- a sketch for a book we are just starting to write. There will be many more dimensions of the argument, not to mention concrete examples, developed in the book, so stay tuned. It's been fun watching news of "spreadable media" get spread by the Twitter community and more recently through the Blogosphere. We are just starting to get substantive responses after watching a first round of "look heres" which were designed to direct people's attention to this discussion as some place where something interesting was happening. I do hope you've found it interesting and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what you make from these ideas. As our model suggests, you will continue to talk about bits and pieces of these posts if they generate worth for you in your social interactions or if they create value in your professional life. You in turn will generate both value and worth for us -- in terms of generating new insights as you talk about and apply these concepts and in terms of expanding the community of people who are talking about these ideas and thus broadening the market for the book when it appears. We've done our bit here, so I hope I can count on you to do yours. :-)