May 11, 2007

the social virus


Today I was wondering to myself, how many copies of my cartoons are out there on the internet, on other people's servers and desktops? I have zero idea, but I'd be surprised if the answer wasn't in the millions. Maybe tens of millions, who knows.

In the middle of this electronic cartoon blizzard is a trail of breadcrumbs that lead back to gapingvoid. Most people check it out for a a few seconds then leave. But some will keep coming back for more. When enough of the latter start reaching critical mass, then word starts spreading about the other stuf I'm up to: Stormhoek, Microsoft etc. Somehow this has a positive effect on my business, and next thing you know, my blog is not just an online diary, but an essential marketing tool.

So the cartoons are not just a form of fairly innocuous entertainment. From my business point of view, they operate as a "social virus".

A social virus is a sort of hybrid between a social object and an ideavirus. At least for me, it's proven a most effective marketing tool.

I'm sure somebody far more clever than myself could make a fortune, designing social viruses for other people... What do you think?

Posted by hugh macleod at May 11, 2007 10:24 AM | TrackBack

Quite the bon mot of the day - a cartoon blizzard - very evocative. You have certainly conquered the toon-meme as the carrier of your various virus srains. But I wonder what the incubation period of such a strong strain really is - in your case several years to get to the level of penetration and dissemination required for effective marketing.

It would represent a medium-term investment for an organisation to try to use this vector for it's ideas/products. Probably the best that could be hoped-for would be spikes of interest (OK they called them viral marketing campaigns).

The cool and interesting thing about the length of time required for success is that it would take a real committment over time for a business to take viral/meme marketing approach.

Posted by: frank at May 11, 2007 2:03 PM

I think it's funny that Uncle Fester is the spokesman for the Church of the Holy Business Model. I found gaping void by googling "edgy blog writing." I'm actually quite surprised that I hadn't seen one of your cartoons before that. Now I see them everywhere. Isn't that the way?

Posted by: futuregirl at May 11, 2007 2:10 PM

I think the power of what you do Hugh, is in the passion and uniqueness of it all. A clever person might be able to design other social viruses but would they be "me-too's" and cookie cutters rather than some unique distinctive global microbrand?

You sum it up in your "how to be creative" manifesto when you say (I am paraphrasing) "you could do this sketches on a card thing but I have years on you and you would be operating out of some bitter motive"

That is something that has to come from the heart not manufactured in an agency boardroom.

Just some thoughts for you...

Posted by: Nigel James at May 11, 2007 2:12 PM

Well, people only copy and distribute your cartoons, but are also inspired by you, I'm an example. So besides your business ideas, you also spread inspiration, which is not bad as a byproduct :) I used to make t-shirts with ideas written on them; after being infected by you I've started cartooning, and been able to get the message across much more powerfully. Someday I'll make decent cartoons, thank you for that.

As far as designing social viruses for other people, I'm not sure if that would work; the outcome is not authentic and the virus would not spread for long.

Cheers from a spaniard living in Puerto Rico.

Posted by: JoaquĆ­n at May 11, 2007 2:24 PM

I think you are the hottest thing next to a bikini waxing!

To show appreciation for your entertaining cartoons (that are my daily addiction) I have "twittered" your dotcom and given you mention. In a very small way, I think that makes me a "S. virus carrier" for

Posted by: RKR at May 11, 2007 4:03 PM

For what it's worth - I check in on your blog at least twice weekly and I usually have NOT A CLUE! what you are talking about - I know nothing about marketing etc and don't ever know what you mean by web 2.0. So how did I find your blog? I guess you could say - "the viral way." I'm a reader of the Foe blog. Why do I stick around with your blog? The inspired, cynical, yet up-beat lunacy of your cartoons - first and foremost. And, in a weird viral kind of way - I learn through you about things apart from my world - very apart. So, yeah!, your cartoons definitely work.

Posted by: Anna at May 11, 2007 4:07 PM

Hugh, I have been reading your blog for some time now and I can say that I am one of those you're speaking of. I stumbled across one of your cartoons some time ago and had to find out where it came from, since then I check in on the blog at least twice a day. Most of what goes on in the world of gapingvoid is way over my head, but i consider myself to be intelligent enough fill in most of the voids (pun... intended) in what I know and have learned about web 2.0 and the like.

Through your postings I have found many other blogs I also enjoy checking out. (notcot being one of my favorites, found it off the Graphic Arts Meta Weblog you're attached to). I am in graphic design and architecture fields, it is great to see the underground aspect of those markets through your links and postings. Also, I think of myself as a wine buff and I have looked all over for Stormhoek here in Michigan, but to no avail. I don't doubt the wine is magnificent, but I really just want a Hugh MacLeod bottle to show off.

I have the cynical cartoons all over my walls, people ask all the time where they come from and I am able to add to the social virus where ever I can. A few of my colleagues who deal more with business and marketing tell me that they have checked out your Hughtrain and have really been inspired to try new things in their fields.

Anyway, just felt like this post was directed at people like me and that I would stop being the silent reader and let you know that the virus truely is spreading and it really is working.

look forward to everything that is to come,


Posted by: rich at May 11, 2007 5:00 PM

What apt timing for this post! I happen to have circulated at least a dozen out of those millions of copies of your fantastic cartoons. And just before reading today's post, I emailed one of your HTBC doodles to a friend.

You're damn right about the viral infection. The HueBug's got me coming back to this site over and over again and has inspired me to create something too.

Whether I make a fortune or not, I owe a big one to you.

Thanks Hugh!

Posted by: Hrishi Mittal at May 11, 2007 5:16 PM

False modesty young fella...

Posted by: Den at May 11, 2007 6:03 PM

it kind of speaks to that idea of equity, brands often talked about equity, as in the value they built over time, I wonder if gapingvoid is an example of viral equity... if you've got enough social objects in circulation then you are building equity. The idea that the value you derive is greater that the sum of the individual social objects. I've often though that blogs build equity over time, blog posts are like small deposits into a bank account and after a year or so you are earning a lot of interest on those ideas.

Posted by: karl at May 11, 2007 6:05 PM

Your "social virus" is effective because it is real. A "commissioned" social virus wouldn't have the same authenticity or "voice" no matter how clever the marketer.

I have never met you but I can tell that you are real and transparent and that is why I read your blog everyday.

Posted by: Stephanie at May 11, 2007 6:09 PM

'Social virus'? Is that a STD?

Posted by: Mack Collier at May 11, 2007 6:14 PM

As for your broader point about how your cartoons help drive business and turn Gaping Void into a marketing tool, I agree, but that's way too much work for most people. Kudos to you for having the stamina to stick with it, and I think you're really starting to see the results, but many people don't have the time, and probably even more are too lazy to try.

Posted by: Mack Collier at May 11, 2007 6:16 PM

I am one of those people who saw one of the cartoons and now have gapingvoid bookmarked. I love the cartoons and the blog and check in every morning before I start working, to see the latest and greatest....

I think that I got here initially from an image search on Donald Trump's hair, that led to Sean (a winner of The Apprentice) and then to Stormhoek, and then to gapingvoid. What a weird, strange trip it has been, no?

As for the social virus idea, Electronic Arts, the video game company, experimented with it, during its marketing campaign for 'Majestic' -- a multimedia reality suspense game that never made it big. They had guerilla marketers splash cryptic stickers and flyers in bars and clubs in several markets, in hopes that people would be intrigued and tell their friends.

Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, delves a little bit into the subject as well -- discussing the viral way things become fads. He explains that it doesn't just matter that people see your site, for example, they have to be the right KIND of people.....

Posted by: jen of the moo at May 11, 2007 7:02 PM

I hope so.

Posted by: Lee at May 11, 2007 7:45 PM

Saw you in Seattle last week, now I check your blog every day. We loved the decommoditization/social object idea and are trying to figure out a way to implement it and get paid.
If we come up with anything good (which, honestly, we will) I'll shoot it over to ya.

Thanks for the creativity. You are, in fact, now linked to from my blog.


p.s. loved the wine!

Posted by: Rachel at May 11, 2007 8:55 PM

I'd have to say you're dead on. All it takes is something catchy and today's users will latch onto it like a rabid sheep and ride it til the next great thing comes along. As much as we don't like to admit it, most of the population are sheep when it comes to catchy advertising. Someone with fresh ideas could make a killing imho.

I'll admit, I check for Stormhoek wine here in Hawaii when I go to the store just to try it out based on your participation with it. Alas, there is none.

Posted by: James at May 11, 2007 9:10 PM

I really love your cartoon on the business card. It shows that simple ideas have always great power.

Ps. I'm becaming a virus carrier uploading your image an link on my pixelpage.

Posted by: JoePampano at May 12, 2007 12:24 AM

Is a "sheep social virus" comparable to "Mad Cow Marketing" disease?

..."most of the population are sheep when it comes to catchy advertising"...(I agree)

If Hugh has "sheep", I would think the wolves are not far away.

I would like to see which direction the good shepherd takes his flock in the future.

Signed, Not Wearing Wool & Fabulous in Fur ;)

Posted by: RKR at May 12, 2007 2:25 AM

i think the key to the whole virus thing is authenticity. and you are definitely the most authentic Hugh Mcleod that i'm aware of.

Posted by: vinny warren at May 12, 2007 3:30 AM

Don't say that hugh! I'm already living in fear of being targeted by word-of-mouth advertisers who pay people to go about the place chatting about their specific product... even taxi drivers!

Posted by: Rob McDougall at May 12, 2007 4:17 AM

This is right on.

Had this brain-flash last night, and thought I'd leave you a question: Did you ever do a cartoon for your point about "things happening from blogging INDIRECTLY"?

I don't remember you exact words, but I see your "indirectly" point play out over and over, every day. Your point about this may be one of the ultimate zen truisms about the Web/blogging ever.

If people don't get your point now, if they stay in blogging long enough, they will.

Posted by: KG at May 12, 2007 3:21 PM

Agreed. Plus it is a non-invasive form of Marketing - people can explore for it instead of being forced to look at it. An interesting approach for a public that is becoming more and more numb to advertising. But, in practice, the effects would be difficult to measure... compared to say... sampling to 1,000 people and measuring sales-lift.

Posted by: Stefanie at May 12, 2007 3:47 PM

You're viral because the cartoons are brilliant. I'd like to know why some 'old school' publisher hasn't approached you for a book.

I have my doubts about:

a) someone being more clever than you
b) designing social/marketing viruses out of nothing

If there were no web, your cartoons would be in magazines, newspapers - xeroxed and mailed in those strange, obsolete paper-holding contraptions I think are called 'envelopes' - and along with your copywriting skills, you'd still be doing fine - and be well-known in the industry.

Posted by: Chuck Nyren at May 12, 2007 6:51 PM

I referenced you on AdPulp. Because I think your cartoons are genius.

Posted by: Danny G. at May 13, 2007 4:03 AM

Hugh, social viruses are not your average virus. Unlike most viri, the social virus only infects like minded individuals, in other words, the social virus tends to spread along certain genus (or genius) lines.

Like your 'sex and cash' theory, and your 'using business cards to weed out prospects', not everyone self selects or opts into your particular line of thought.

As you have so brilliantly pointed out, there are really two kinds of people, those who get it, and those who don't. Those who don't, hire people who do to 'get it for them' or create the illusion that they are 'into the scene'.

Thus, the rise of 'hired gun bloggers', Public Relations folks, Image consultants, and the like. All of these industries exist so square folks can appear hip too.

If you are not creative, but have resources, one can always hire someone else to be creative for you. Want to look hip, be on the cutting edge? Easy, spend a few shekels and contract it out!

Now, all the fine window dressing means crap when the curtains are pulled aside and the world sees what really is. As some major firms have found out hiring the creation of false blogs to promote a certain agenda, as have others who have tried to create a false personality, or assume one that is in now way congruent to their reality.

So many crave originality, many try to buy it, few reward it, many feel threatened by it. You just can't fake orginiality. Either you are, or you ain't.

Posted by: Darcy Moen at May 13, 2007 4:16 AM

I got here by hearing about your "How to be Creative" post. So well said!

...So, yes, I posted one of your cartoons in my site... and a link to your words as well... you are an inspiration! Thanks.

Posted by: eva at May 13, 2007 5:54 AM

talking of social viruses...have you seen new avatars taking the blog world by storm...seems like a bit of a fad, but fun to mess around with.

Posted by: Stuart at May 14, 2007 7:37 AM

It's a healthy virus that makes people think! Ooooooo ....

Posted by: Manola Marketblanik at May 14, 2007 5:31 PM

Check this out!

Posted by: Ryan_dm at June 13, 2007 8:02 AM