Strategic Comms 49: Having Paul Revere Ride in Viral Times

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(This is the 49th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan

Listen my children and you shall hear 
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
I always emphasize with my students that diffusion is a social process.  That is, ideas mostly spread through social networks along the diffusion curve that we previously discussed (see Strategic Communications Part 44: How to Reach Your Tipping Point and Strategic Communications Part 45: How to Develop an Influential Strategy  In fact, one of the best predictors of whether an idea is adopted is based on the degree of interconnectedness of individuals in a social system.

As a result, communication needs to be seen as a multi-step process and as a means of generating interaction among people, especially at the macro-level where mass communication is typically used.  For instance, many people have said that the billions of dollars spent on TV spots during the presidential race were a waste of money because we are simply a divided country.  The implication here is that none of these spots were effective in swaying public opinion.

However, there was an undecided universe of voters heading into the election.  And, even if these ads did not directly influence these undecided voters, it is reasonable to assume that they generated some debate and discussion among people’s interpersonal networks.  Therefore, because communication is a multi-step process, these ads at least partially achieved their objective as they generated knowledge and awareness of certain issues.

Some people also question the effectiveness of ads shown during the Super Bowl or the Olympics.  But part of the value of advertising is generating awareness and stimulating talk among people.  That’s why ads that stick are so effective.  The more people remember them, the more they’re likely to talk about them.  As you know, many people watch the Super Bowl primarily for the ads and many people discuss them for days afterward.  This fact alone is evidence of the viral effects of these ads.

One of the best examples offered by Everett Rogers and Malcolm Gladwell on the importance of interpersonal networks concerns the midnight ride of Paul Revere.  On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere rode from Boston to warn the colonists that the British were marching to capture their revolutionary leaders and seize their arms.  The next day, so many of the American militia gathered at Lexington and Concord that they soundly defeated the British.

What is not as well known is that another rider left from Boston at the same time as Paul Revere with the same objective.  Who was this rider and why was he so ineffective?  His name was William Dawes and the reason he was so ineffective was simply because he didn’t know which doors to knock on.  That is, Revere knew the opinion leaders in the surrounding communities as he had been a part of many revolutionary groups and Dawes had not.  As Revere alerted these opinion leaders, they in turn activated their own networks to accelerate the diffusion curve.

Modern day marketers also try to use these techniques to create viral marketing.  For example, a market research company that was marketing a new game for Hasbro, asked thousands of boys aged eight to thirteen, “Who’s the coolest kid you know?”  Through this process, they identified 1,600 opinion leader kids which they used for both further qualitative research and to seed hundreds of schools in the Chicago area with gaming units to help start a social epidemic.

So, ideally you want the equivalent of Paul Revere or the coolest kid to proselytize your idea, product or service.  At the very least, you want them to talk about it or have others talk to them about it.  If you’re not part of their conversations, your competition might be.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email

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