I stumbled across an interesting article by Robert Young that introduces the concept of “micro-celebrities”; i.e. popular individuals within social networks, whose natural enthusiasm for a product or brand can be supported, amplified, and ultimately projected outwards. The basic idea: instead of (or in addition to) paying a famous celebrity millions of dollars to hawk your wares, why not identify and reward several thousand of your most popular fans, such that they are encouraged to spread word of your product (explicitly or implicitly) to others?

This is not entirely a new idea. Malcolm Gladwell (sort of) touches upon it in Tipping Point. But I like the way Robert has framed the issue, even though his example (featuring micro-celebrities in video ads) is too heavy-handed for my taste.

So, here’s an idea for game companies. Identify popular individuals in social networking systems like MySpace and Xbox Live who are already expressing a natural affinity for your products. At the most basic level, this simply means finding people with the most friends, then doing a quick check on what media they’ve associated themselves with and what games they’ve written about. All this can be automated; anyone who makes it past the filter is then reviewed by a human being, just to make sure they’re an appropriate candidate.

Once you’ve identified your micro-celebrities, reach out to them. Let them know that they’ve been singled out for their interest in the product, and that you care about their interests and feedback. Make them feel special by pulling them into an exclusive group. Maybe try low-cost but thoughtful things to reward them; for example, send them free copies of new games. A triple-A title that needs to sell a million units to be a “success” isn’t going to suffer in the least from 5,000 giveaways, but if each give-away leads to 50 or 100 purchases… you get the idea.

Micro-celebrities could also be supported with (but not forced to use) exclusive media assets that they can employ however they wish. Perhaps major publishers could even hold parties in major cities once a year for their micro-celebrities?

The beauty of the idea is that you’re not actually forcing anything; you’re simply amplifying tendencies and affinities that already exist. And you’re doing it in a subtle way that shouldn’t cause “loss of credibility” for your micro-celebrities (in other words, they won’t be called sell-outs; if anything, their friends will probably become jealous and vie for similar status!)

Studies are showing that weak, “unbiased” signals (like those generated by social networks) are 10 to 15 times more powerful than strong, biased signals (i.e. TV advertisements). No consumer product company can ignore this phenomenon — those who do will quickly find themselves at a very major disadvantage.

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