What Makes a Rumor so Easy to Spread?

urban-legend-rumorWe all want to be part of the next viral world of mouth success story. We want our product to be at the epicenter of a “buzz” storm that spreads like wildfire across the internet. But the conditions that lead to true word of mouth viral outbreaks dictate that these outbreaks are few and far between.

Jumping the Weak Ties

First of all, let’s look at what’s required for word of mouth to spread. The trick to a true viral outbreak is finding something that will jump the “weak ties”. Mark Granovetter identified weak ties in a social network back in the 70’s. Basically, social networks are not uniform and even. They are “clumpy”. They have dense clusters, comprised of people who tend to spend a lot of time together. These are family members, co workers, close friends, members of the same church or organization. Word spreads quickly throughout these clusters, because of the frequency of communication and the nature of the relationships between the members of the cluster. There’s an inherent trust there and people talk to each other a lot. This makes the social ties within the cluster strong ties. Given this, once one person in the cluster knows something, there’s a pretty good bet that everyone in the cluster will know it in a relatively short period of time.

But the challenge comes in getting a message to make the jump from cluster to cluster. How does word of mouth spread from one group of co workers to a church group in another town? To do this, we’re relying on social ties that are much weaker than strong ties. We’re counting on an acquaintance to pass word along. And for that to happen, some conditions have to be met first.

Lowering the Drawbridge

In 1993, Jonathon Frenzen and Kent Nakamoto followed up on Granovetter’s earlier work (Frenzen, Nakamoto: “Structure, Cooperation and the Flow of Market Information,” The Journal of Consumer Research, December 1993) to see the conditions that had to be met before a message would jump across a weak tie. In their words,

“Instead of an array of islands interconnected by a network of fixed bridges, the islands are interconnected by a web of “drawbridges” that are metaphorically raised and lowered by transmitters depending on the moral hazards imposed by the information transmitted by word of mouth.

In their study, they looked at a number of factors, including the nature of the message itself, and the concept of moral hazard, or how it would impact the messenger. For the test, they used news about a sale. In one social network, they saw how fast word would spread about a 20% off sale. In the other social network, they used a sale where the discounts were a more remarkable 50 to 70% off. To introduce a moral hazard variable, they also altered the availability of sales items. In one case, quantities were very limited, and in the other, quantities were practically unlimited.

What they found was that amongst strong ties, word of the sales spread fairly quickly in most instances. But when the message wasn’t that remarkable (the 20% off example), word of mouth had difficulty jumping across weak ties. Also, when moral hazard was high (quantities were limited) again, the message tended to get stuck within a cluster and not be transmitted across the weak ties.

Mexican Vacation Sale

Let’s use an example to make this a little clearer. Let’s imagine an airline is having a seat sale to Mexico. In the first example, it’s $50 off per seat, but it applies to every seat on the plane, on every flight. There is no limit on the inventory available. In the second instance, instead of $50 off per seat, the entire cost of a return flight to Mexico is just $50. That’s much more remarkable. And in the third instance, the sale is again $50 per person, but it’s limited to 10 seats on 2 flights, for one day only. Only 20 tickets are available at this price.

In the first instance, you would probably only pass along the information if someone happened to mention to you that they were thinking of going to Mexico. The information is not that note worthy. The value of information is not that great. There’s little chance that this would ever move beyond your “strong tie” cluster. It’s not something you’d go out of your way to mention to an acquaintance.

In the second instance, a $50 flight to Mexico is big news. And we’re socially predisposed to share remarkable stories. We believe it elevates our social status within our cluster. Every one likes to be the first to tell someone about something remarkable. It’s part of human nature. So we’ll go out of our way to share this information. We don’t even wait for someone to raise the topic. This is noteworthy enough that it merits bringing up in any context. It’s worth interrupting normal conversations for. Word will spread far and wide, across strong ties and weak ties alike.

But in the third instance, even though the news is remarkable, we personally have something to lose by spreading the story. There are only 20 seats available, so if we tell too many people, we might not get a chance to take advantage of the sale ourselves. Chances are, we won’t tell anyone until our seats are booked. And even then, we’ll probably only tell those we’re closest to. After we look after ourselves, our next inclination is to make sure those that are closest to us won’t miss out on the opportunity. Again, because of this “moral hazard” there’s little likelihood that word will spread beyond our strong ties.

Rumor has it

So, now that we know the limitations of message transmission within a network, depending both on the structure of the network and the cooperativeness of it, let’s look at one type of information that always seems to spread like wildfire through any social network, regardless of the circumstance: the juicy rumor.

Rumors have no moral hazard, at least, not for us. There are no limitations of quantity. We don’t stand to lose out (at least, not in a material sense. We’ll leave the ethical questions aside for now) by spreading a rumor. So that restriction is gone.
Secondly, the likelihood to spread a rumor depends on the nature of the rumor itself. First of all, does it involve people we know? Personal rumors about people we know are almost irresistible to spread. They beg to be passed on, again, because they put us in the position of “being in the know” and having access to information not available to everyone. Second to the personal rumor is the celebrity rumor. These are a little less “spreadable” because we’re not in the same privileged informant position. Also, although we know the people involved, in the public sense, we don’t really know them in the personal sense. When it comes to rumors, the closer to home they hit, the better.

Finally, we have the “juiciness” of the rumor. How sensational is the story? How remarkable is it? A rumor about your neighbor’s washing machine breaking down isn’t going to go too far. But an affair leading to a marriage break up, being fired from a job or a significant health issue, unfortunately, are stories made to spread. Because we’re human and inherently competitive, we love to spread bad news about others.

Fine Tuning the Rumor

And this brings us to an almost universal behavior seen whenever rumors tend to spread. We like to fine tune the story to make it a little more interesting. Rumors are subjected to “flattening”, “sharpening” and “assimilation”, just to make the story a little more sticky. Flattening is where we get rid of the details that get in the way of what we feel is the noteworthy aspects of the story. In some cases, the discarded details are contradictory and in some cases they’re just extraneous. Regardless, if they’re not pertinent to the main story we want to get across, or if they dilute the story, we toss them out.

Sharpening takes the remaining facts and enhances them a little (or a lot) to bring the story and it’s value as news into sharper focus.

Finally, assimilation is where we take the story and make sure it fits within our shared mental framework. We alter the story so it fits with ours (and our recipients) shared beliefs and views of the world. That’s one reason why rumors are so “spreadable”. We alter the story to ensure it’s interesting, and the further the story goes, the more irresistible it becomes.

The ultimate example of this are urban legends, where once there may have been a kernel of truth, but the stories have become so flattened, sharpened and assimilated through countless retellings that now, as intriguing as they are, they are basically manufactured fictions.

Negative Word of Mouth

We’ve always known that negative word of mouth spreads faster than positive. When we take what we now know about social networking and apply it, we begin to see why. For instance, negative word of mouth and rumors share a lot in common. There’s generally no moral hazard in play. In fact, the reverse is true. You’re actually helping people out by sharing this information, and you get a little retribution and revenge yourself. It’s a twisted win-win!

And for some reason, humans are much more likely to pass along negative information than positive. Again, it comes to our concept of social hierarchy and building ourselves up through the misfortunes of others. Admirable it’s not, but predictable? You bet!

And finally, the better known a company or brand is, the more likely negative word of mouth will spread. If there’s bad buzz circling about Nike, McDonald’s or Starbucks, we’ll all take part because all those brands are part of our shared frame of reference. We’ve already assimilated them.

By the way, remember that negative word of mouth will also be subjected to flattening and sharpening, as well as assimilation. So the negative buzz will get worse with each retelling.

Obviously, if you’re counting on word of mouth as your marketing channel, you have to take the reasons why word of mouth spreads into account. It can be made to work for you, if the conditions are right, but remember, this is not a process you have much control over. You can plant the seeds, but then human nature will take it’s course.

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