Word of mouth is the best form of marketing. If a trusted friend recommends a product, we’re more likely to buy it. 

Where is the line between a business getting a few word of mouth recommendations and a product becoming a widespread sensation?  How does a company like Silly Bandz go from being a simple rubber band to all the rage?

Felix Reed-Tsochas of Oxford University and Jukka-Pekka from Harvard found that our innate “herd mentality” only kicks in when a certain threshold is reached.  The pair examined 50 million Facebook users in 2007 and looked at all of the apps they downloaded.  At that time, The Economist notes, “a Facebook user’s apps were all visible to friends, who were also notified when any new app was downloaded (a practice Facebook has since abandoned).”

The researchers found that a typical app was installed roughly 1,000 times, whereas the most popular app received 12,000,000 downloads.  The tipping point between an average app and an insanely popular one seemed to be when it reached 55 downloads per day.  Before the 55/day point, a friend’s behavior largely affected another user’s decision to download the app.  After that, users began to download the app on their own accord; a friend’s activity didn’t matter.

From this finding, the researchers determined that a product’s popularity doesn’t spread like an infectious disease — an outbreak which spreads uncontrollably.  They didn’t find much of a network effect.

The Economist concludes that “virtual lemmings are discriminating in ways we still don’t quite comprehend.  As is, no doubt, the offline troop.”

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