How does a single pensioner lapping his Bedfordshire garden eclipse big brands and pop stars on social media?
Captain Tom Moore has become the oldest artist to reach number one on the UK singles chart as his rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ landed in the top spot in time for his 100th birthday. Whilst walking 100 laps of his garden, a combined distance of 2.5km, Captain Tom has raised an amazing GBP £32,796 m from 1,519,386 supporters (at time of writing). In a country of 67m people, that’s more than 2 in every 10 people making a donation to a cause started by a war veteran generating GBP £12m per kilometre with a zimmer frame. Not even Usain Bolt gets that kind of money to run 100m!
How did he do this?
It started as a simple plan between him and his daughter. He promised to walk 100 lengths by his 100th birthday at the end of April, and aim to raise £1,000 for the National Health Service to thank them for his recent surgery. There hasn’t been a PR agency, months of careful planning, teams of Cambridge Analytical style social media managers seeding and planting stories in feeds of people with an inclination to sponsor old people walking in gardens or with an interest in supporting the NHS. Interestingly the donations weren’t even all from the UK, they were international. Captain Tom is even famous in China!
The answer lies in what is called the ‘cascade theory.’ Duncan J. Watts* of Department of Sociology, Columbia University New York wrote about these in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 99, No. 9 (Apr. 30, 2002), pp. 5766-5771.
In Watts’ model, individuals and their friendship relations are modelled as ‘nodes’ and undirected links of a “random network.” Each node is assumed to have a deterministic or random threshold Φ, such that a node will “adopt” the new idea as soon the number of its friends already adopting this idea exceeds the threshold Φ.
They explain the ‘herd-like’ mentality which is necessary for a cascade to happen being when each person, or node, receives sufficient impetus to push them across the threshold of a binary decision.
That decision being to
a) do nothing
b) take action.
SCHEMATIC OF NETWORK MODEL OF INFLUENCE
Decca Records, which released the “You’ll never walk alone” song, has only 8.03k subscribers to it’s Youtube account but the video of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone The song– Captain Tom Moore, Michael Ball & The NHS Voices of Care Choir’ has 1,707,343 views on 20 Apr 2020 and 29k thumbs up, with a miserable bunch of 708 giving the old man a thumbs down. Enough people watched this video and had their threshold met in order to take action, to share it with others in their network. For the 708, plainly their threshold of boredom was sufficiently met in order to take action, even if negative action. Plainly 1,677,635 saw this and didn’t make a comment but did either pass on or receive this video. They amplified this video to the top of the pops.
What we didn’t see with Captain Tom was the leadership of his campaign by anyone other than himself, his daughter and grand daughter; this wasn’t led by highly paid personalities and whilst it received international media pick up it seems to be all extremely focused on the central message and the 100 year old man literally walking the talk and saying, “We’ll get through this” referring to the Corona Virus. This is a man who has lived through World War II – he knows about suffering and survival; and this leads us to a clue as to why this is working. In my essay entitled ‘Viral PR in Covid Times’ I wrote how audiences now are resonating with messaging filtered through a new COVID Lens which needs to be ‘Compassionate, Optimistic, Values based, Informative and Digital.’ Knowingly or not, Captain Tom and his family built a pr story which includes all these elements down to the Twitter handle @captaintommoore.
Captain Tom’s campaign managed to eclipse the ‘Clap for the Carers’ campaign – which logically should have elicited more response because it is a nationwide campaign by millions of people applauding the 100,000 ’s of carers seeing us through the COVID Times. However so far videos of people clapping has gained only 163,697 views on The Telegraph YouTube – the largest number of any of the news outlets. Uncle Tom eclipsed this cause, and even the World Earth day YouTube video only gaining a paltry 8,370 views in spite of it impacting the entire planet!
So how did this happen without any celebrity CEO or endorsement beyond repetition within traditional and social media? It’s interesting because it defies the common perception about what is necessary for success in social and traditional media which includes an army of stars, media managers and digital targeting specialists.
The influence of ‘Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell, and the ‘The Influentials’ by marketing gurus Ed Keller and Jon Berry, along with Pr agencies, has led to a movement to engage “E-Fluentials” or ‘Key Opinion Leaders’ who can “make or break a brand.” Captain Tom didn’t have these people on his humble team. It was his daughter armed with a mobile phone and a twitter account. So the question is why and how can a centenarian cause a global viral campaign to support a national institution which is funded by the taxes of the same people who are donating over GBP £30M?
The answer I believe lies in the insight provided by excellent work entitled ’Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation’ researched and written by Duncan J. Watts Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, , and Peter Sheridan Dodds , Director at the University of Vermont Complex Systems Centre, in the Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 34, Issue 4, December 2007, Pages 441–458. It takes the Cascade theory onto another level. The academics challenged the ‘“influentials hypothesis,” using a series of computer simulations of interpersonal influence processes. I reached out to Peter Dodds who kindly shared the full research piece with me and gave his consent that I cite it here and I link it here.
"Under most conditions that we consider, we find that large cascades of influence are driven not by influentials but by a critical mass of easily influenced individuals.”
Watts & Dodds found in their model that ‘surprisingly, [because popular belief is the power of the key individuals] the cascades that are triggered by hyper influentials are on average less successful than those triggered in low-variance influence network.’
What ‘low variance’ means is when people in the network share values and thresholds on a matter. A low variance and tightly connected network makes for fertile ground for the right kind of cascade at scale. They draw the analogy with a match causing a massive wildfire; the matches are all the same but the conditions for a wildfire have to be favourable (or unfavourable of course) in order for the match to light a spark , and the spark to be whipped to a wildfire by tinder, wind and no breaks.
This theory makes sense because influencers may reach a large number of people, they are connectors, but their actions and messages may not be enough to move individuals, or nodes, to shift from their binary negative position. It’s also because the connectors may have very little in common with the people they are connected with. It’s like a match being lit and dropped onto a wet bbq; it’s touching all the charcoal but it still doesn’t light. It’s also why we watch TV but don’t all of sudden go and do what we are told by the presenters, or the Government or even teachers. Some people may be more influential than others, but as politicians know awareness doesn’t always lead to votes.
Influencers may distribute information more than others, but they are not necessarily more persuasive. This is because the message they share must fall on fertile ground, and their personality must be aligned with the message which they are sharing in order to be authentic. Captain Tom has a proven past of service to the nation, had an altruistic motive, lives as a widower with his family, and is coming back from surgery to repay those who helped him to literally get back onto his feet for that 2.5km GBP £30m walk. It helps that he looks like everyone’s idea of a British granddad and speaks well in an accent which is easy for international audiences to understand. In other words, he looks the part.
Captain Tom’s viral effect during Covid Times was unexpected but on reflection entirely rational when we look at the events this way.
Through the lens of our Viral PR lens of COVID his activities were:
Compassionate: We’ll come through this together
Optimistic: Everyone can make a difference
Values based: Gratitude for medical treatment he had received.
Informative: Clear goal of walking 100 laps in his garden
Digital: Twitter was his platform with over 301.5k followers and his funding was the largest ever on Justgiving
Using the academic modelling of Watts & Dodds we can see that to become a viral sensation isn’t a function of a branding agency nor the engagement of expensive ‘key opinion leaders.’ It is the function of a match lighting a tinder spark in a ready to ignite forest of public opinion. This is liberating for all companies, entrepreneurs and causes because as much as social media platforms are dominated by the big companies, the content and the popularity of the purveyors of that content is not.
As I write this article, there are some 100 petitions calling for Captain Tom to be knighted with the most popular on Change.org attaining some 200,000 signatures. The normal requirement for an OBE is one recommendation with 3 supporting letters to the Honours Committee. Captain Tom has plainly surpassed this requirement and quite rightly so. His accomplishment has been magnificent and I for one shall toast his success.
I shall also toast the fact that one man, who pre dates by a long time the digital generation, has illustrated that social media displays an essentially democratic tendency when it comes to rewarding those who do good for the right reasons.
When Watts and Dodds write that ‘large cascades of influence are driven not by influentials, but by a critical mass of easily influenced individuals’ they don’t intend that these people are gullible but rather are receptive to learning of information which resonates with their own situation and values, and one which flips a binary switch to make better decisions.
To prove that this isn’t just some pr speak, this has been quantified by the mathematicians. Valente, Thomas W. (1995), Network Models of the Diffusion of
Innovations, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton created the formula which shows that when the value of the information passes the threshold at which point a person wants to accept it and to share it, the requirements of a cascade are present. This then is the essence of how Captain Tom didn’t walk alone – by crossing the threshold of his home on a 2.5km journey for the NHS, he was accompanied by the hopes and aspirations of tens of millions around the world who believed in him and his mission to repay those who serve them all. His journey was a proxy for the entire nation.