Did you watch the movie “When Harry Met Sally”? There one scene which takes place in a ballpark in which Harry talks to a friend of his about his divorce during a baseball game. A sad topic and a sad discussion which is interrupted a couple of times when the two are part of a “Mexican Wave” or “La Ola” – so they stand up and put their hands up just to sit down half a second later. A pretty comical combination in this scene. But while in the first days of the World Cup in South Africa, the “Vuvuzela” horns were the standard support coming from the fans on the stands, during the last couple of days the “Mexican Wave” could be seen in nearly every match.
The wave is an interesting phenomenon. It starts with the fact that the “Mexican Wave” is not a “Mexican Wave”, it’s actually a “US Wave” as it was most probably launched for the first time in 1981 in the US, however there’s still a controversy if the wave was first used at a Washington Huskies (American) football game or an Oakland A’s baseball playoff game. Whatever, it spread from there and gained a lot of popularity during the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, which is why many people identify it with Mexico today. It can be considered a part of pop culture since then.
It’s quite impressive to see a full stadium with 60.000 or 80.000 spectators do the wave, but if you’ve ever been part of it, you know that every wave starts pretty small. How small? Well, let’s ask the experts:
Illés J. Farkas and Tamás Vicsek from the Department of Biological Physics at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, have analyzed the dynamics of stadium waves in a study (no, seriously!). They concluded that the probability of a wave is related to the size of the triggering group (unsurprisingly), but the more interesting point is that it does not need more than 25-35 people to create a wave (below 25 the probability is practically zero while above 35 it gets close to 100%.).
The two scientists also found that the challenge when creating a wave is to activate others. Aren’t a lot of people in marketing faced with the very same challenge every day? Here’s where looking into the theory of stadium waves becomes really interesting. In their study, Farkas and Vicsek use analogies to so called “excitable media” (based on the “Greenberg-Hastings Model”, for those of you that want to Google it) like forest fires and adjust them to the topic of stadium waves. One sentence from their study could come from a marketing textbook:
“People are regarded as excitable units — they can be activated by an external stimulus”
One additional factor plays an important role in this: The so called “activation threshold”, which related to how big the distance of an individual to the stimulus is.
Traditional models of marketing communication were built on the idea of broadcasting the marketing messages as broad as possible to make sure anyone can be touched by that stimulus at one point in close proximity of his location, or, more simple: When you’re sitting on the sofa to watch the game, you will probably also watch the 30 seconds advert during the time out.
This model is dying.
In our analogy: People in a stadium aren’t more activated when they just stand up once and remain standing, or, as Farkas and Vicsek call it:
“Once activated, each unit follows the same set of internal rules to pass through the active (standing and waving) and refractory (passive) phases before returning to its original resting (excitable) state.”
Having twenty waves going round in a stadium at the same time doesn’t work. Given the dramatically increased differentiation of the media landscape, activating everyone by just broadcasting your messages and hoping to reach everybody in an “excitable state” can not work anymore. There’s too much noise, there are too many brands trying make the people cheer at the same time. That much for the bad news.
Here’s the good news: “25 to 35”.
You don’t need to reach the whole audience at the same time. Small groups with a joint target can create big waves. That doesn’t always mean 25 to 35 people (Kevin Kelly made the case that for musicians, 1000 true fans would be the critical mass required), the point is that a movement for an idea, for an organization, for a product or service can be successful when started small, but in the right way, with people that are excitable and in proximity.
That’s the basic idea behind most social media. Ever wondered why Facebook groups can grow so quickly even though just a hand full of people initially promoted it (sometimes even just one)? Or look at the Twitter model: Millions of waves (hashtags could be a good analogy) in million of stadiums/ proximity situations (groups of followers).
Anyone can start a wave. I am with this blog (and you are part of the “25 to 35” people required to make it swap), probably many of you also are with your endeavors. As a result no one can control the entirety of waves anymore which is a complete nightmare to those used to the broadcasting model. Speaking of business models: Facebook’s and Twitter’s business is based on selling the entrance tickets to the stadium, they just offer the infrastructure (stands) for creating the wave.
The interesting point is that in order to be excitable, people need refractory or passive phases. The number of active phases is not infinite. People that want to participate in every wave, e.g. by following a million others on Twitter, won’t add much to the creation of a wave. Like in a stadium, dilution and loss of interest kills waves. What counts is how many people you have in close proximity (Followers, Connections, …). That’s a major challenge for marketers in this new world.
If you’re not interesting, outstanding, fascinating – activating – no one will help to make your wave circle. This is why the new model is way more challenging and fun than the old broadcasting model: It’s not just about communication channels anymore, it is about you, about your message, about your product or service. If it’s not activating enough to find and motivate your “wave starter group” (no matter if that means 25 or 1000 people in your “stadium”), it’s not going to circle around and all you can do is move on.
The truth hits you harder and more direct than any time before, but that’s a good thing. Just imagine how much marketing communicators in the broadcasting age would have given for such a kind of instant reality check.
Farkas and Vicsek write in the conclusion of their study:
“Although the situation and the model we have considered is relatively simple, they give an insight into the mechanisms by which quick decisions are made by groups of people.”
I guess I’ll borrow that conclusion from them.