How to Use “Us vs Them” Stories to create Social Media Evangelists

Us vs them is one of the oldest, and most powerful marketing ideas. Apple is a quintessential example: from their beginnings they’ve portrayed themselves as the small guy against the big powerful bully. In 1983 it was IBM and more recently its been Microsoft. The company turns customers into evangelists who are more than happy to spread the word about the good fight, but how exactly does it work?

In a 1983 article titled “On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures” the author, Douglas R. Hofstadter recounts a letter he was sent in response to a previous peice. This letter describes self replicating (viral) sentences, beginning with the rudimentary:

It is your duty to convince others that this is true.

The letter writer notes the obvious: unless the listener believes the statement above, it won’t spread. (Tweet this and see what happens.) He then moves on to a more sophisticated structure where the above sentance occurs at the end of a set of beliefs:

If the listener accepts statements S1 through S99 they will act on S100.This is how many religions work, the belief system is the bait and attached to it is an evangelism hook.

The letter then explores a more subtle variation based on a simple structure:

The villain is wronging the victim.

If the listener believes this statement, and believes that the victim deserves to be saved and if the villain is bigger or more powerful than them they will realize that the only way to effectively challenge the villain is to recruit more people to help. The evangelism hook is implicit, subtle and powerful.

When I looked at urban legends I found a similar phenomenon that occurs with striking regularity online called the Goliath effect. Simply put, people love to communicate about abuses of power against the underdog. Microsoft and the RIAA are favorite Goliaths of the web.

If we want to design a viral idea based on this structure, we have 3 blanks to fill: “villain,” “victim,” and “wronging.” For example let’s look at the title of one of my most popular blog posts ever:

Twitter plans to Mangle ReTweets.”

The easiest way to make someone believe that he victim is worth saving is to make them identify with the victim, in this case anyone who ReTweets. ReTweeters were the target of this sentence, and given their contagious behavior, they make a wonderful audience.

The villain of this sentence is, of course, Twitter. They may not be a huge company, but they’re larger and more powerful in this area than any individual user. The only way someone could hope to #saveretweets would be to recruit all of their followers in the fight.

In the post I spent considerable time asserting and proving the “wronging” part. I explained why the proposed changes were going bad and needed to be stopped or at least challenged, this is the “bait” part in the figure above.