Military Scientists Use Yelp and Digg To Test Viral Marketing Skills

In the age of Reddit and BuzzFeed, it seems like everybody wants to know the secret to making things go viral. Even the military wants to know how to make things go viral, and one research team says they've figured it out—using an algorithm they tested on social networks like Digg and Foursquare. Wait, why does the military want to know the secret to viral marketing? You'd be surprised.

A trio of data scientists from West Point just published a paper in which they say they've found the key to identifying the "seed" group that pushes an idea or trend over the tipping point in the form of an algorithm. The basic model is pretty simple. First, you have to assume that a specific individual will want to receive a message if a certain proportion of her friends have it. That proportion serves as the threshold between too few friends and a critical mass of friends that can make the message go viral. Once this threshold has been determined, they determine the seed group by removing the people in the network who have the greatest excess of friends past the threshold. After doing this again and again, those left in the network who have exactly the number of friends as the theoretical threshold are identified as the "seed" group.

The military researchers tested out their algorithm on a number of networks including Digg, Yelp, YouTube and Friendster. (Yes, you read that right.) And they insist that it works. In one example, they marketed a piece of content on Foursquare using the algorithm and discovered a 297-fold return on investment—a huge ROI for not much work. MIT's Technology Review suggests that the algorithm could be useful to "the legion of marketers wanting to make their product viral." But not everybody's convinced.

Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, says that the military's approach takes a few things for granted. "What they talk about makes a number of a assumptions—such as people tell everyone they know about things—that don’t hold true in real life," Berger told Gizmodo. He added that focusing completely on the network doesn't always make sense because not all content behaves the same way.

This brings us back to the fundamental question. What kind of content is the Army really interested in making "go viral"—or at least understanding why it goes viral? That's easy: anything that could aid the war on terrorism. Berger said the military has been researching this idea of viral marketing for a while as a way to identify the most influential group in the larger enemy network. Taking out the "seed" group among terrorists could cripple the whole force. "They’re also very interested in information spreading," said Berger. "How do we increase the spread of positive information? How do we prevent rumors from spreading by understanding what’s more likely to spread?"

Ultimately, there's no "secret" to viral marketing—but it is possible to stack that cards in your favor using a recipe tailored to the situation and network in question. And it's clear that the military is pouring significant resources into fine-tuning their skills. It's pretty funny to imagine the Army watching BuzzFeed's model closely so that they can catch more terrorists. Maybe kitten videos really can save the world. [MIT Tech Review]