Voices of Digital Communities

The Viral Marketing of an Influenza Virus

Like you, I have been following closely the news coverage of the swine flu virus, or as we must now call it, Influenza A(H1...

by / May 4, 2009
Like you, I have been following closely the news coverage of the swine flu virus, or as we must now call it, Influenza A(H1N1).  Call it "Heinie" for short.  For the past week, Heinie has been - and I mean it literally - the perfect news story.

Why?  First, there are developments every few hours, which means there is always something for the global news business to report.  Second, there is only a small quantity of fact but enormous amounts of opinion, speculation and forecasting.  That generates a self-replicating series of news stories about people reacting to news stories.  And finally, it's about the most important thing in the world: my precious life and health, and that of the people I love.  As we say in New York, what's not to like?

Influenza-Virus.gif Speaking of New York, if you are planning to come here for our Building the Broadband Economy summit May 13-15, you will be interested in a few facts:

1.  There are 49 suspected cases of Heinie in New York City, in a population of 8.3 million.  Do the math: Heinie is affecting 0.00006% (six one-hundred thousandths of a percent) of the population.  They are all associated with three schools in the borough of Queens and appear to stem from a spring break student trip to Mexico.

2.  According to our Health Commissioner, the symptoms are mild.  Nobody is in the hospital, though lots of frightened people are flocking to emergency rooms. In the words of Crain's New York Business, "None of the 49 suspected cases of the panic-inducing new influenza strain in New York City has produced anything worse than the symptoms of the plain old seasonal flu."

3.  One person in the United States has died of Heinie.  He was a 23-month-old Mexican visiting his relatives in the state of Texas.  It was devastating for his parents - but it hardly constitutes a public health threat.

Personally, I'm more worried about being struck by an asteroid than being laid low by Heinie.  Seriously.  Over 5,800 "near-Earth asteroids" cross the Earth's orbital path as it speeds around the sun, according to astronomers.  If you want to worry about something, worry about that.

Asteroid.gif The Heinie scare is interesting, however, for the way a real virus has become the subject of "viral marketing."  That's a term used by advertisers to describe how the Web can spread rumor and opinion about a product or service, create curiosity, build "buzz" until suddenly everybody is emailing, posting, commenting and tweeting about it.  In the round of news stories about news stories, I have heard public health officials being interviewed about how this viral marketing affects their efforts to communicate.  One said that he had learned the best approach is not to contradict bad information out there, because that breeds conspiracy theories, which rapidly take on a life of their own.  Instead, his organization focuses on constantly pushing out fact-based news, trying in his words to get ahead of the digital information virus.

At BBE09, former CNN commentator Garrick Utley will lead a discussion on exactly this topic: "Communities Online vs. Online Communities."  It explores how community leaders can deal with the "echo chamber" of email, blog, texts and tweets so as to promote thoughtful debate and decision-making over uncertainty, fear and hatred.  We'll be hearing from Dave Carter of Manchester UK, Andrew Cohill, a founder of Blacksburg Electronic Village, and Shirley Brady, Community Editor for BusinessWeek.  It should be fascinating.  Spread the word.  
Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.