Web Exclusive Essay

How Spreadability Changes How We Think about Advertising

Ilya Vedrashko
Spread This

You can’t spell “spreadability” without “ad.”

The vision of unpaid people cheerfully passing around ads they love has been a guiding light for marketers for more than a decade now. And what’s not to like? An ad that gets passed along receives extra attention. The Good Housekeeping stamp of consumers’ approval that such transmission suggests is assumed to add trustworthiness to the message. An ad that “goes viral” scores extra eyeballs.

But while the demand and the budgets for “viral” have been growing, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find a permanent box for spreadable media on the modern agency’s org chart. While many different disciplines—creative, media, public relations, social—are claiming ownership, a systemic problem has prevented spreadability from gaining a true acceptance.

Ad agencies, like factories of the industrial era, are a particular arrangement of means of production, highly specialized labor force and scarce resources optimized around efficient mass manufacturing of a particular type of output. For agencies, this output consists of ad units placed in print, television, online, radio, outdoor, theaters, events, and so on. An average agency produces and places thousands of such units on behalf of its clients each year.

These ads—paid announcements that appear in media—come in a finite variety of formats and sizes, and their production is scalable to the point where much of it can be, and has been, automated and outsourced. Ads are designed to elicit responses along the vector “see, like, remember, buy.” The agencies are structured around maximizing the number of these responses. Media departments craft media plans that try to ensure the highest number of the right people see the ad at the lowest cost. Creative departments are judged by the number of people who like and remember the ad. Ultimately, the agency’s output is evaluated against the number of people who buy the advertised product. The more people see, like, remember, and buy, the more successful the agency is in the long run.

This success historically has depended on answering two questions: who and how many. Art directors and copywriters work off creative briefs that describe the who. Media planners’ computers are brimming with syndicated research data that seemingly cover every possible nuance of how many. For every who there is a matching number, and, if a piece is missing, then surveys are fielded, focus groups summoned, interviews conducted, and clusters analyzed.

If agencies are struggling with the newly emerging forms of media, it’s not because they don’t know how to make ads. The problem is that ads are all that their fine-tuned machinery can manufacture fast, efficiently, and at scale. When a situation—or a curious client—calls for something that’s not quite an ad, they fiddle with the settings a bit and rely on their machine to produce something radically different. It’s like asking a train factory to make airplanes and expecting to get something other than a locomotive with wings.

Remember Second Life, the newest of new media five years ago, a virtual gamelike world with its own currency, a bustling economy, and flying avatars? The press quickly made Second Life its darling, putting it on various Top 10 lists and magazine covers. Advertisers followed; I remember sitting in on a conference about avatar-based marketing that was held in an in-world amphitheater, with cartoonish presenters flailing their hands as they typed in their speeches and occasionally flying off. Over a hundred real-life brands rushed to set up a “presence” on the new frontier and issue a press release.

By 2007, the honeymoon was over, its end punctuated by a cruel Wired piece titled “How Madison Avenue Is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life” (Rose 2007b); the same magazine less than year earlier had published a guide to Second Life as “the coolest destination on the Web” (“Wired Travel Guide” 2006). Brands began shutting down their in-world “presence” and writing off their failed investments.

There had been a lot more excited discussions about the potential of marketing in Second Life than sober postmortems about its failures. Why did many expensive branded in-world installations average less than 3,000 weekly visits at the peak of their popularity (Rose 2007a)? Pundits offered reasons that ranged from the world’s difficult interface to the indecent activities of its unruly residents. Wagner James Au, a longtime observer of Second Life, writes, “To play in Second Life, corporations must first come to a humbling realization: in the context of the fantastic, their brands as they exist in the real world are boring, banal, and unimaginative” (2007).

What really happened is that instead of an airplane, advertisers made a locomotive, the only thing they knew how to make, and bolted wings to it. They were handed a medium that was unlike anything else on their media plan, they looked for a familiar ground, and when they found it, they stuck a billboard into it. Surreal, three-dimensional, and defying laws of physics, their branded islands were still ads, units of output produced as an answer to who and how many.

What they never answered or asked is why and how. Had they asked why, they would’ve realized that in a world where you could, for a couple of dollars, assume the likeness of anyone from Elvis and Harry Potter to the sitting U.S. president, there wasn’t much need for a virtual American Apparel outfit in a range of colors. Had they asked how, they would’ve understood that Second Life was not a screen someone watched; it was a screen where someone created. For brands, to become an integral part of Second Life meant helping players to become someone they couldn’t be in their real lives, to help them create. Instead, they erected monuments to the advertising tradition.

Why and how are the keys to mastering the emerging media, which aren’t some new shiny black boxes or software programs as much as they are new behaviors. Bookmarking anything other than a page in a book is a new behavior. TiVoing, friending, digging, googling, tagging, and tweeting are new media behaviors, too. Together they add a new dimension to the advertising axis; it’s now see-like-remember-(digg/twitter/friend/bookmark/etc.)-buy. The ad business has always been about creating messages that get people to do something with the product. It was an end to which the creative manifestation of the advertising message was an ethereal means that people saw but couldn’t—and weren’t supposed to—touch. Advertisers didn’t expect consumers to do much with their ads except look at them, remember them, and make the respective choice at the store. Part of it could be attributed to the nature of the media in which those ads appeared, and part of it was due to the existing social norms: who would ever rip an ad from a magazine and mail it to a friend? Yet in the world where messages themselves have become objects of activity—friending, digging, retweeting, and so forth—we have to begin thinking about what it is that we want people to do not only with the product but also with the message, and how to get them to do it.

In a way, these new types of messages that perform the same persuasive function as traditional ads but don’t come readily out of the agency machine are a lot like products they are made to advertise. Many of them in fact are products: three 2006 Burger King games came out on Xbox disks and were sold for $3.99 each. Made by an advertising agency, the games designed to peddle burgers were themselves promoted by regular machine-manufactured ads in a kind of meta-advertising pyramid that is now becoming a common sight.

There hasn’t been an industry term that captures the essence of artifacts such as the Burger King games; “merchandise” is too broad, and “swag” doesn’t reflect the complexity of the relationships among the creators, consumers, media, and brands. We can call them advertising products, things that sell other things. As long as they are intended to be an object of interaction, it is irrelevant whether they come with a price tag or are distributed for free. Thinking of advertising agencies’ output as products rather than ad units suggests two major changes in how these agencies work. First is recognizing that the most important common feature between YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Second Life islands, and iPhone apps is not that they are “digital” and thus belong in an online ad department or that they are “social” and thus are the domain of social media marketing experts but that they are media products, that their success is governed by the laws of successful products, and that they should be approached with advertising thinking second and product-design thinking first.

The second change, then, is the introduction of product-design methodology, with its focus on consumers and their needs, goals, motivations, and ways of doing things, with regard to media: the hows and the whys. Product designers say that a good product is the one that’s useful, usable, and desirable, and because the traditional advertising output never had to be any of these, it rarely is. At Hill Holliday, the advertising agency where I work, making advertising useful, usable, and desirable—as opposed to simply persuasive—is called media design. Both in its name and by its nature, media design sits at the intersection of media and creative. Unlike media planners, media designers are generalists across all media types. Unlike copywriters and art directors, they are specialists in media behaviors.

The gap between advertising and media design modes of thinking can be illustrated by the difference between “viral” and “spreadable.” “Viral” is unmistakably an advertising term. It is an answer to the “how many” question; it refers to something in which consumers have no active involvement—in other words, an ad. Since a piece of content can be truly called “viral” only in retrospect in the way marketers often use the term, “viral” also describes an outcome without explaining the underlying mechanism.

“Spreadable,” on the other hand, suggests consumers’ active agency and describes a feature of an advertising product, a feature designed and guided by the knowledge of how and why people pass along some content but not others. Unlike “viral,” whose singular focus is content, “spreadability” also has to do with attributes of the medium in which the content appears. In a 2010 experiment, my colleagues and I found out that the continued sharing of a link placed on two entertainment sites with seemingly identical audience composition and traffic numbers could differ by a factor of two, depending on the primary reason for visits to those sites (Vedrashko 2010). Same content, different outcome.

Agencies that are committed to manufacturing ads will remain comfortable with “viral” as a welcome but unpredictable side effect of their work. Those who are not content with treating every medium as a uniform surface to be plastered with recycled yard signs will be better served by adopting “spreadable” as the media design mode of thinking.


Au, Wagner James. 2007. “Marketing in Second Life Doesn’t Work . . . Here Is Why!” GigaOM, April 4. http://gigaom.com/2007/04/04/3-reasons-why-marketing-in-second-life-doesnt-work/.

Rose, Frank. 2007a. Comment on W. James Au, “UNWIRED.” New World Notes (blog), July 26. http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2007/07/unwired.html#comment-77280266.

———. 2007b. “How Madison Avenue Is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life.” Wired, July 24. http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/magazine/15-08/ff_sheep.

Vedrashko, Ilya. 2010. “Five Things ‘Jersey Shore’ Taught My Agency about Social Media.” Advertising Age, July 21. http://adage.com/digitalnext/post?article_id=145024.

“Wired Travel Guide: Second Life.” 2006. Wired, October. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.10/sloverview.html.

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