How Do You Make a Snowball?

snow-ball-lanternUmair Haque says that “media (in fact, consumer [marketing]) strategy must shift from Blockbuster to Snowball…[enabled by] the self-organization and regulation of complex, interdependent collective action…This is inevitable; it’s the nearly bulletproof outcome of the economics of the edge, and market power shifting to consumers.”

Umair offers two recent examples of Snowballs: The sudden burst of popularity of some modest YouTube videos, and the rapid unmaking of Washington Post plagiarist neocon Ben Domenech.

So what is the difference between a Blockbuster and a Snowball, and how do you ‘create’ the latter? In the case of a Blockbuster, the vendor is capitalizing on the substantial attention (a scarce commodity) that they can command through high advertising budgets, brand, celebrity endorsements etc. In a Snowball, the vendor is capitalizing on the perceived value, according to the wisdom of crowds, that their product has, and the enormous power of the Internet and word of mouth to coordinate and spread information about that perceived value quickly and inexpensively. Traditional big companies want to hope that it’s kinda the same thing — you blow enough money cleverly promoting your new product, lots of people are going to talk about the product and the promotion, and hence perhaps generate a Snowball on top of the Blockbuster.

Often, however, this does not happen. Customers are not stupid, and are often cynical, and if you hype or lie about your Blockbuster in your zeal to promote it, the hype and lies will become the viral story, and the Snowball that occurs will crush you rather than rolling you to success. And sometimes Snowballs will occur in spite of a lack of promotion and other Blockbuster qualities, as the psychology of novelty, supporting underdogs, and ‘jamming the culture’ kicks in. As the availability of more, customizable, filterable information increases, customers will no longer need to rely on trusted brands or celebrity endorsements as surrogates for real information on value and quality. And they will be able to use that information to assess value and quality on their own terms, instead of the lowest-common-denominator terms of the mass market and mass media.

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting. A Blockbuster is a complicated phenomenon — there are a finite number of variables that can be carefully analyzed and used to predict, with a high degree of certainty, that the next movie with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, based on a popular mass media novel, will be a spectacular financial success even if it’s a piece of crap. The same process can be used to predict that the sequel to this movie will attract 80% of the audience of the original with 50% of the marketing investment, even though almost all sequels are pieces of crap.

By contrast, a Snowball is a complex phenomenon — there are an infinite number of variables at work, their cause and effect are impossible to analyze, and prediction is essentially impossible — you can influence complex phenomenon with appropriate attractors and barriers, but not control them, and the risk/return ratio to justify spending large sums trying to influence them is, like the risk/return ratio for rebuilding New Orleans (another complex problem) just not there. The oligopolies hate not having any control. They’d better get used to it. The control is passing rapidly to the customers, plural, which means essentially that, as in most complex situations, no one is in control.

If this is the case, is trying to start a Snowball hopeless? Not at all. In fact, if you’ve done your research, so you know what your ‘customers’ (in the broader sense of the term: The Crowd) need, want, care about, your product, idea or proposal is much more likely to succeed, even without costly investment in hyping it. Could you possibly know that three quarters of a million people would watch the aforementioned YouTube video of a girl who “frets over the end of the relationship, as she simultaneously cheers herself up by playing with computer effects and altering her on-screen appearance with the click of a button”?

Well, yes. It’s novel, it’s artistic, it’s entertaining, and it’s informative (a ton of people have learned what software they can use to creatively spice up their own videos on the fly). These are things people value. It consumes only 75 seconds of user attention while accomplishing this feat. And, of course, it’s free.

Note that I said “what your customers need, want, care about” not “what your customers should need, want, care about”. You cannot get ahead of the market. There are some amazing blogs out there that people should be reading every day, but they won’t — like many great artists, scientists, composers and philosophers, they’re too far ahead of the curve to hope to become popular in their own time. Not Snowball material.


  1. Being about something people need, want or care about is the most important prerequisite. Useful, interesting, clever, fun. What else does a Snowball need? 
  2. Momentum: It can’t be too original, arcane or off-the-wall; it has to get its movement from something already moving, feed off it, resonate with current thinking. 
  3. Uniqueness: It has to be imaginative, not a copycat. Making sequels is for the Blockbuster crowd with lots of money to promote them. 
  4. Accessibility: People only respond to ideas and information that fit with their worldview, so if your concept is too confrontational, too scary, too contrary to ‘accepted wisdom’ it may attract a cult following but will likely get no bigger than that. Having a good story helps make the concept more accessible.
  5. Simplicity: The easier it is to roll, the more people will push the Snowball.
  6. Credibility: You can’t exceed your reputation. If you haven’t the experience and credentials to back up what you’re talking about, you better have some compelling evidence and/or examples.
  7. Authenticity: People are skeptical about being used, lied to, or misled. Any sign that they might be being Tom Sawyered and not only will they stop pushing the Snowball, they’ll start destroying it.

Two obvious examples that meet all of the above Snowball criteria: The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell), and The Wisdom of Crowds (James Surowiecki). Gladwell is an expert Snowball-maker, and some of his Snowballs (learned helplessness, the moral hazard myth, cellular organization) have been launched with a single New Yorker column.

An example that has 6 out of 7: Steven Levitt’s idea, in Freakonomics, that liberalization of abortion laws in the 1970s is the top reason urban crime in America has plummeted in the past 15 years. You’re thinking it fails #2? Nope — Lots of momentum for the discussion about drop in crime rates. It fails #4 — People balk at it because it’s confrontational, no matter where you sit on the political spectrum. It’s unsettling, makes people uncomfortable. So why is the book so popular? Because it uses the same methodology to give parents comfort that if their kids screw up their lives, it really isn’t their fault. That idea meets all seven Snowball criteria.

My list may be flawed or incomplete, and since it fails to meet criterion #6 (I’m not a marketing expert, nor have I successfully launched a Snowball — yet) it is very unlikely that this post will become a Snowball on viral marketing or customer/citizen strategy either. Unless of course someone with credibility picks it up and — er — runs with it.

In the meantime, additions to and critiques of the seven criteria for a successful Snowball are welcome. Umair’s started it,I’ve added a little snow — your turn.

Photo: Swedish snowball lamp, from

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3 Responses to How Do You Make a Snowball?

  1. Sandy says:

    Forgive me for the elbow in the ribs — but seriously, isn’t this blog a snowball? How many people link to it? How many people read it each day? For me, you are an inspiration and a fellow traveller down the path of how to change the world for the better.Just last week (or was it the week before?) you convinced me to experiment with Zaadz, and thanks to that little post you made, I have found all kinds of likeminded people there!-Sandy

  2. says:

    well it’s down to three feeds — your blog, comp.lang.python and comp.lang.rubyI tried to start a snowball, but found people were only interested in fre information, and wasn’t sure if it really did them any good. It was harder than hell to get them to *go there* and look at the free information. You had to get into existing discussions and point out how your information might be relevant. This Cluetrain Web2.0 thing is a lot more work than mass marketing, though much less expensive than advertising.Anyhow, I study Unified Structured Inventive Thinking, a derivation of TRIZ heuristics created by Ed Sickafus. Google it. I can’t make you go there.

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