Examining Why Ideas Spread

Adam Pedowitz, a big-brained colleague of mine, recently pointed me to The New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande which takes a look at why some ideas around medical advancements spread and why others fail. It’s a fascinating read that deals with culture, complexity of the message and other contributing factors. But the lessons learned definitely do apply to the marketing world – and more specifically to the word of mouth marketing world.

One of the examples Dr. Gawande cites in about the discoveries of both anesthesia and antiseptic in the mid-1800s. Before these were introduced in the medical world, people would have to endure the pain of surgical procedures – and you can imagine how unpleasant that would have been and then post-surgery, the rate of infection was so high that half of surgical patients would perish. The short and long of it is that once doctors heard about both, the administering of anesthesia skyrocketed, but the use of antiseptic didn’t.


First, one combatted a visible and immediate problem (pain); the other an invisible problem (germs) whose effects wouldn’t be manifest until well after the operation. Second, although both made life better for patients, only one made life better for doctors. Anesthesia changed surgery from a brutal, time-pressured assault on a shrieking patient to a quiet, considered procedure. Listerism, by contrast, required the operator to work in a shower of carbolic acid. Even low dilutions burned the surgeons’ hands.

Making the leap to marketing, invisible ideas are hard to sell. And on top of that, ideas that require a personal sacrifice in some way are even harder to sell. Take this to heart, my friends. Look at TOMS. They aren’t asking you to give money so they can buy shoes for people who need them. That would be an invisible idea and require a personal (monetary) sacrifice. They sell you shoes and, in addition, give away a pair.

So remember, when you’re launching that new product or introducing that big idea to the world, there are basic tenants to follow. And taking a step back and remembering who your audience is and what they want and don’t want could be the difference between your idea spreading like wildfire and picking up the pieces of your marketing plan.

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