Monday, 23 March 2015

Paralytic Analytics-Epidemics

How To Create An Epidemic -Using Logic and Psychology 

                                                     THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

Most people think that the job is of an analyst is  just to passively analyse the information that he gets and produce useful insights using that. Well that is only half the truth. Sometimes you may be asked to proactively exploit your understanding of a system to create the desired effect. 

In his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcom Gladwell the author has describe how epidemics, in every sense of the word are created. Epidemics ranging right from the flu to a fashion or opinion epidemic. He, in very vivid detail describes what it takes to make something go viral; and not just in the context of the internet.

Here is a resipy of a strategy for creating a useful epidemic.
Lets look at it from the eyes of a Mathematician and Game theorist.

The best way to learn is by example. Suppose you the owner of a alternate energy solutions company which specializes in solar micro-grid based solutions. Now like any other business, your main aim is to make the maximum possible profits. And there are four main ways of making a lot of money while selling something.

  • you should have a monopoly over the sale of the goods/services that you are selling or
  • your product should be the best in the market in which case it can be difficult to offer a competitive price , or 
  • you have to sell something extremely precious and it's price should not be regulated by any organisation, that means that you cant sell oil or gold but one of the many viable options is art. But sadly you ended up in the energy business so that is off the table. And finally
  • you should sell something in huge volumes with a small margin for profit. That way you increase your probability of being liked by a larger crowd of people and the probability of repeat customers because of the competitive pricing that you are able to offer.

Well , you may have the best product in the market , in which case you don't need to read further but we are looking for a way of creating a successful business independent of the kind of product that you are offering. Of course , product quality does matter in the long run, but that is not the only factor.

That narrows down your options to just one- maximizing your sale volume.
So how to maximize sale volume you ask?
Well, the answer to that is simple (but not trivial); first o fall you need find a target customer base.

Your target customer/client base is a group should have the following properties:

  • They should be one of the majority sections of the society.(Because you want a lot of clients)
  • Should be able to afford your services/product and will benefit from it.

That narrows it down to everybody starting from the middle class and above who lives in a house and even other companies that have office buildings of any sort. Now one other thing that you need to be aware of is the limitations of your product. you cant go around making false promises. And you need to tell your clients about it in the most strategic way. Something on the lines of "No, no Sir, your wife is not fat at all, she is just Not Thin".

One obvious client base in your target city for business lives in the suburbs and housing colonies. So basically you are looking for similar people (socially and economically) who live in close proximity.

Now, the "game" begins...

The book Tipping point describes three main factors that are important for triggering an epidemic

1. "The Law of The Few". Unlike what most of you may be thinking, epidemics depend on a select group of very few people. They are of the following 3 types :-

  • The Connectors: These are the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions. A connector is essentially the social equivalent of a computer network hub. They usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional, and economic circles, and make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles. They are people who "link us up with the world...people with a special gift for bringing the world together". They are "a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances".Malcolm Gladwell characterizes these individuals as having social networks of over one hundred people. Gladwell attributes the social success of Connectors to the fact that "their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy".
  • The Mavens: These are "information specialists", or "people we rely upon to connect us with new information". They accumulate knowledge, especially about the marketplace, and know how to share it with others. Gladwell says "A Maven is someone who wants to solve other people's problems, generally by solving his own". According to Gladwell, Mavens start "word-of-mouth epidemics" due to their knowledge, social skills, and ability to communicate. As Malcolm Gladwell states, "Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know".
  • The salesmen: These are "persuaders", charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. They tend to have an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say, which makes others want to agree with them.

2. The stickiness factor. The specific content of a message that renders its impact memorable. This may include the use of catch phrases or slogans. Something on the lines of the Tata Sky catch phrase , "Isko laga dala to life jhingalala"

3. The power of context. Human behavior is sensitive to and strongly influenced by its environment. As Malcolm Gladwell says, "Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur". This will be better understood as you read further.

Malcom Gladwell is not the only one teaching about how you can make things more popular instantly. An interesting way of looking at this methodology can also be seen in one of the lectures on "Learning:Near misses, Felicity Conditions" by MIT's Patrick H Winston in his artificial intelligence lecture series. He proposes the method of inducing felicity to any product using the five factors represented on a star.(The 5 S's)

Here is a breakdown of the five features that your product/idea (basically anything that you are trying to sell) should have:

  • Symbol: This is as simple as it looks. Your product/idea should be represented by a visual handle like a brand icon that reminds people of your product/idea every time they see it. This accounts for a vast majority of the crowd who are visual thinkers.
  • Slogan: This is again a sensory handle for the people to be reminded of your product/idea . The slogan you create should have the stickiness factor in it, ergo, once people hear it, they should not be able to take it off their mind. This is where Gladwell and professor Winston meet.
  • Salient Thought: Well this is a bit tricky to understand and implement, but when you think about the salient feature of your product/idea , it usually refers to the feature that really sticks out without it being directly mentioned. It basically pertains to the purpose of the particular endeavor. For example; what is the salient thought of a Fort ? It is security during a siege. This needs to be clearly conveyed by your selling pitch.
  • Surprise: This pertains to the uniqueness of your idea/product. The surprise factor usually demands a deviation from the norm in such a way that it has never been seen or expected before. All this may take a certain level of showmanship on your part. And finally
  • Story: See, people just LOVE a story. Studies have shown a heightened retention of stated facts in an average person if they are presented to them in form of a story. Stories are sort of a mnemonic device for remembering facts.

So, there you have it, if you can execute the above five steps perfectly, it is virtually guaranteed that your product/idea will be widely appreciated.

And now you may ask that all this may be good in theory, but how do you really go about doing all this.
To understand that, we come back to our solar energy solutions example.

Most of the features suggested by Prof. Winston may be handled by marketing and or consulting firms, but we will now see what can be done on a human level for ensuring success in your business.

The first thing you need to arrange for are the salesmen . They are the ones that will be doing most of the legwork for you.
Once you have your guy and I am trusting your judgement of character for choosing one, you move onto the next step.
You have to find the connectors and the mavens and that to simultaneously. This is when you put your salesmen to work.

Here is how you identify your connectors:
They are the famous people who live in your targeted suburb. They may be the heads of the community, local political leaders and pseudo-celebrities. But keep in mind that they cannot be too different from your target audience, they just have to be respected members of the society whose abode is frequented by very many. These people will form the focal point of your expansion campaign.

It is these people that you need to sell your product to first and do so in such a way that it is amply conspicuous . For example, although it is normal practice to just place solar panels on the roof of the building and be done with it but in this case you may need to make an exception. The installation (even if temporary) need to be visible for miles around. Maybe you can install the solar panels on elevated platforms on the roof for no added cost for the period of you epidemic campaign and later "upgrade" to the more safer mode of just placing the panels on the roof floor. The purpose of this " peacock display " is to force the visitors to the connector's place to talk and ask about their recent acquisition. This will help to trigger the first kind of epidemic that you need to generate - The word of mouth epidemic.

Now you need to find your mavens:
It is preferable that your connectors double as mavens, i.e. they display a keen knowledge about the benefits of the recent addition to their home/office. But you don't need to worry about that because people like the feeling that they have made a good decision after it becomes irreversible. So you can rely on your connectors for becoming maven who have expert advice to share which was provided by your salesmen in the first place.

The second principle of psychology that you can exploit for your epidemic campaign id the principle of social proof and authority. So apart from the newly wise connectors , you need to find people who hold a certain sway over their neighbors and society by virtue of their technical knowledge about your product. These may be engineers , owners of technical businesses or related to anything even tangentially related to technology and not necessarily your technology. These people are prone to give free advice as a tribute to their astute technical knowledge. you need to first convince these people about the greatness of your product, because these are the people to whom their neighbor goes for advise after the visit to the connector's place to validate his prospective investment in your product.

It is like so :- if a doctor (assume he is a pervert) asks you to strip in-front of him for the medical checkup though you know that it is only a bruise on your hand and does not warrant a full body inspection, you will still consider the idea of consenting to strip because after all , he is a doctor, and knows better, so you better strip or die because of the mysterious prognosis he may not find if you don't strip. So you depend on his authority and trust him to have only the best of intentions. So, you believe anything he says.

This is what you are trying to achieve through converting the techies in the target crowd into clients.
The other psychological weapon that you are using is of social proof. "If all the important people are buying this product , then it must be awesome. So I am going to buy it too".

The other socio-psychological effect that is desirable is that of forced stickiness and it also borrows concepts form the concept of power of concept. This you can achieve by conducting an aggressive yet cheap ad campaign wherein people see you ads everywhere they go. This may include inserting flyers in the daily newspaper that everybody subscribes to and sticking them in places like building elevators and anywhere else that you can imagine. This will help boost your stickiness factor by exposing people to your brand symbol and slogan again and again.

This is how you influence a large section of society using a very few people. After this it is just about following the savage civilization approach. You move from suburb to suburb and from city to city , sucking up clients and leaving behind a trail of profit in your wake.

So there you have it, a full blown cook book approach to creating your own epidemics !

Understand, that these strategies are universally applicable with slight adjustments with respect to context.

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