How Ideas Spread and Take Hold, Part 1

Stephen DeAngelis

August 04, 2014

“Good ideas and innovation travel easily — and far,” writes John Major. “Historically, these ideas spread along trade routes.” [“Silk Road: Spreading Ideas and Innovations,” Asia Society] As the title of his essay asserts, Major believes the Eurasian Silk Road was an early “transmitter of people, goods, ideas, beliefs and inventions.” I should note that those flows (i.e., the flow of people, goods, ideas, etc.) are also characteristics that help define globalization. Major describes how the Silk Road helped spread such innovations as paper, printing, irrigation, and a variety of foods. Major concludes:

“These examples and dozens more that could be mentioned make the point clear: ideas, inventions, devices and techniques spread readily and far along the Silk Road, and the traffic was very much a two way, or perhaps one should say a multi-way, street. In the process the Silk Road enriched not just the merchants who carried and exchanged goods, but the people of countries and cultures all across Eurasia.”

It takes more than exposure to an idea for that idea to take hold. David Burkus (@davidburkus) claims ideas that spread have five common characteristics: relative advantage; compatibility; complexity (or simplicity); trialability; and observability. [“The 5 Common Characteristics of Ideas That Spread,” 99u] Burkus notes that these traits were first identified by Everett Rodgers in book entitled Diffusion of Innovation. In that book, Rodgers coined the term “early adopters.” Concerning the first trait — relative advantage — Burkus writes:

“Relative Advantage is the degree to which an idea or product is perceived as better than the existing standard. Just how much of an improvement is it over the previous generation? The higher the Relative Advantage, the greater the chance of adoption. … Relative Advantage is what most people think of when they visualize something being ‘innovative’.”

Consider one of the innovations discussed by Major: paper. Paper had obvious relative advantages over clay tablets or vellum. There are exceptions to the rule. When the fight was being waged to create a standard for home video recorders, the VHS format won out over Sony’s Beta format despite the fact that the Sony technology was considered better and the Beta format was smaller. Concerning “compatibility,” Burkus writes:

“The higher the similarity with existing norms, the better the chances of adoption. Ideas and people that miss the Compatibility factor are often described as ‘ahead of their time’.”

Compatibility has certainly played a role in software development; but, as with other traits, there are exceptions. When CDs and DVDs came along, cassette and video tapes quickly disappeared from store shelves despite the fact that CDs and DVDs required entirely new equipment. As you might recall, manufacturers often created a generation of products that played both formats (even cars came equipped with both CD and cassette players for a while. Concerning “complexity,” Burkus writes:

“Complexity (or simplicity) is how easy it is for people to understand the new idea or use the new product. Is this idea a simple extension of logic? Is it an easy-to-use product? If the work or product is seen as highly complex or difficult to grasp, people will shy away from engaging with the product or adopting the idea. … Consider the case of Instagram, the app actually started as an unpopular Yelp-like service called Burbn with the photos as an added bonus. It was only after the complexity was reduced to a single-purpose that its popularity took off.”

As I noted in a previous post, we often explain new products by tying them to old ones. The car was once called a horseless carriage; the radio was referred to as the wireless; the computer was once called an electronic calculator. Such references help complex products ease their way into everyday life. You know a product has enjoyed long-lasting success when it becomes the point of reference for the next generation of more complex products. Concerning the next trait — trialability — Burkus writes:

“How effortless [is it] for the target audience to interact with the new concepts or experiment with the product? How easily can they try it out? The more potential users or patrons can test the product or view the work, the more likely individuals will adopt it. … The more they can try it, the less uncertainty there is around committing to it.”

We are all familiar with free samples, trial-sized products, risk-free offers, or packaging asking passers-by to “test me.” There are reasons that vendors set up booths at trade shows and car dealers allow customers to take test drives. If the product works as advertised, such efforts help spread the good word. If they don’t work, a different kind of word-of-mouth campaign results. Concerning the final trait — observability — Burkus writes:

“Observability is the noticeable results of trying or consuming the idea. When new products are highly visible, it drives more people to share it and increases the likelihood of mass adoption.”

You might be surprised to learn that the term “highly visible” could apply to a fairly small percentage of the population. Gabrielle DeMarco (@gmdemarco) reports, “Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.” [“Minority Rules: Scientists Discover Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas,” RPI News, 25 July 2011] DeMarco continues:

“The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals. ‘When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority, said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. ‘Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.’ … An important aspect of the finding is that the percent of committed opinion holders required to shift majority opinion does not change significantly regardless of the type of network in which the opinion holders are working. In other words, the percentage of committed opinion holders required to influence a society remains at approximately 10 percent, regardless of how or where that opinion starts and spreads in the society.”

That finding is one reason that marketers are eager to discover people they call “influentials” or “influencers.” For more on that subject, read my post entitled “Do You Know Who Your ‘Influentials’ Are?” Marketers aren’t the only people interested in learning how to influence people. Associate Professor of Physics and co-author of the paper Gyorgy Korniss told DeMarco, “There are clearly situations in which it helps to know how to efficiently spread some opinion or how to suppress a developing opinion. Some examples might be the need to quickly convince a town to move before a hurricane or spread new information on the prevention of disease in a rural village.” Giselle Weiss notes, “Every human advance, and what we call culture, relies on the human capacity to embrace new ideas en masse.” [“How Ideas Spread,” Credit Suisse, 13 November 2013] Despite what we know about how ideas spread, there is still a lot we don’t know. That will be the primary focus of the final segment of this two-part series.