“I wish that I could be like the cool kids”

In today’s digital environment, marketers are often seeking a viral way to spread news about their product or to stoke a trend. Traditional thinking was that trends spread predictably. Trends were seen to launch on the west coast (usually from urban environments), spread to the east coast, and eventually make their way to middle America and a mass market. This is why so many “cool seeker” or “trend seeker” researcher panels were established. By connecting to the cool kids in the right environments, marketers could get an early sense of what was going to happen next and get on board for the ride. They could seed ideas with the right audience and let nature take its course.

The Internet has largely blown up this paradigm. It has become a great “leveler” of youth trends. Now, a trend can start anywhere, become viral seemingly randomly, and spin out of control quickly. A geographic center of trends is hard to pinpoint if it exists at all. In research, “trend seeker” panels have become more of an oddity in market research – and have been supplanted largely by online communities of teens from across the country.

How can a communications and “connecting” technology (the Internet) have such a profound impact on how innovations and trends take hold?

Innovation diffusion to the mainstream has been the subject of academic study for some time.  Perhaps the most seminal work in the field came in 1962 when Everett Rogers published The Diffusion of Innovations. This book has been required reading at MBA marketing programs for more than 50 years.

In this book, Rogers outlines a classic theory. Innovators (2-3% of the population) start using a product. Early adopters (10%-15%) see what the innovators are doing and jump on board quickly. Next, the early majority (30%-35%) jumps on board as the hype around the product peaks. The late majority (30%-34%) gets on board. Finally, eventually the laggards (10%-15%) join in.

For decades, this thinking caused marketers to focus a disproportionate effort on the innovators – the 2%-3% of the population that supposedly spark new trends. This concept is the underpinning of why marketing dollars flow towards young people, urban consumers, minorities, etc. as marketers hope to start a chain reaction through the Rogers segments. Why have we had such a focus on youth marketing? It isn’t because they have a lot of money to spend, as compared to other age segments they don’t.  It is because marketers feel they are influential.

New media and viral marketing has made this thinking even more prevalent. If we can just reach the influencers, we’ll let loose a viral effect and sell a lot of product. Unfortunately, this thinking is a good example of applying an old paradigm to a new world.

Even in the pre-Internet past, this thinking tended to work more on a “fad” than a “trend” level. To illustrate this, in presentations I often ask the audience to write down what they think the most successful marketing brands and products have been in the past 10 years that are youth-oriented. I pause, and then list them out on a whiteboard. Typical responses are as follows:

  • The iPhone
  • Harry Potter franchise
  • American Idol
  • Barbie
  • National Football League
  • Various Boy Bands

I then point out that franchises like these, which have hit it incredibly big with youth, all have one thing in common. They didn’t diffuse to the mainstream in the Rogers fashion. They didn’t start by being popular with cool kids. Rather, they found a way to go directly to the mainstream. Oftentimes, they got there by being shunned by the cool kids.

I believe the rise of the Internet will eventually (once they catch on) cause marketers to stop thinking in the traditional way about how new trends diffuse to the mainstream. The introverted kid in the Midwest who has a popular blog is fast becoming more influential than the hipster on the street in Los Angeles. Marketers will find more direct tributaries to the mainstream, and the cool hunter research panels that still exist in the market research industry will disappear.

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