How to Use Novelty to Create Contagious Ideas

Every time I’ve looked at the contagiousness of ideas, be it online or off, one of the most frequent characteristics I come across is novelty. I’ve found that ReTweets tend to contain less common words than normal Tweets, and I’ve found that survey-takers highlight “news” as the most common type of content they share.

In 2007, researchers at the Hewlett-Packard’ s Information Dynamics Laboratory in Palo Alto studied social news site Digg and found that “novelty within groups decays with a stretched-exponential law, suggesting the existence of a natural time scale over which attention fades.”

And Free University of Brussels research professor Francis Heylighen lists “novelty” as a criteria for a successful meme, saying “New, unusual or unexpected ideas or perceptions tend to attract the attention, and thus arouse the cognitive energy which will facilitate their assimilation.”

In our everyday lives we are exposed to many more stimuli than we could ever hope to consciously digest, so our minds have evolved to include a sophisticated filtering mechanism by which our attention is drawn only to the important bits. This selective attention can be triggered by things like hearing our name over the noise of a loud party, or by a change in something familiar.

We’ve all had the experience of noticing something different about someone or something we see every day. Perhaps a co-worker got a hair cut, or construction on our daily commute changes it. Were it not for the difference, we would have never actively focused our attention on these things since they’re so common place.

I follow several thousand people on Twitter, I’m subscribed to a few hundred blogs and I get a hundred or so emails a day. I (like nearly every one else on the web) am exposed to lots of ideas every day, in fact, many more than I could ever become consciously aware of and ponder. Before I ever have a chance to spread one of these ideas, I have to be come aware of it. Remember my Hierarchy of Contagiousness?

If someone wants to get my attention as an individual, they’d do best to personalize the message to me, and use my name to trigger my selective attention. But, if they (like most marketers) want to get the attention of many individuals they need to rely on novelty.

Many of the other characteristics of contagiousness I’ve come across, such as social proof or scarcity, contain fairly obvious ways for marketers to use them to our advantage. But novelty isn’t quite so easy, we don’t always have an endless supply of breaking news at our disposal.

As an individual, I’ll consider an idea novel if I’ve never heard of it. It doesn’t have to something no one has ever heard before, just new to me. This opens up an entirely new set of possibilities for being novel without being breaking news.

In a 2002 study on attention and memory in advertising in the Management Science journal, researchers found that: “advertisements that were both original and familiar attracted the largest amount of attention to the advertised brand.” This means that we should use a tactic I like to call “new/old” to design novel content that is also intuitive for readers.

“New/old” is a structure where either new content is put into a old structure, or old content is put into a new structure. An example of the former is steam punk, where sci-fi gadgets are constructed from steam-age technology, and an example of the former the Newest Romeo and Juliet movie, where an old play was set in the modern day.

So if you have existing content or ideas, try fashioning them into a new structure, as the authors of Tough Love, a business book written as a screenplay have done. Conversely if you have an entirely new idea you’re trying to communicate, reach for a familiar structure.

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