We know buzz is the wildfire effect that transforms ideas into socially infectious phenomena that spread through populations with the speed of epidemics. And, in the era of social media, it's the new marketing holy grail as advertisers look for new ways to subvert the constraints of the traditional media model. But if we want to harness and exploit the power of buzz, we need to understand why some ideas catch fire and spread whilst others fizzle out.

Why do we all go bananas over a meerkat, or a guy in a fetching bath-towel talking about “lady fragrances”? What are the emotions that impel us to hit the send button and share great ideas with our friends and followers?

Over the past year, my company has been trying to identify the emotional wellsprings of social infection. We’ve looked at infectious advertising (such as Meerkat and Roller Babies); infectious objects (including political ideas, movies, celebrities, and even events like the World Cup) and, most recently, infectious brands. We used Conquest’s new metaphor based online tool – infeXious™  – to understand why these objects caught fire and become socially infectious, and how these forces can be harnessed to create great social ideas that light a fire under a brand.

Here are some of the insights and hypotheses we want to share:

1. Ideas choose people - not the other way round

Richard Dawkins suggests that infectious ideas are, like genes, selfish replicators – units of cultural transmission (“memes”) that are unconsciously imitated as they rip though communities.. Which is probably why people often talk (metaphorically) of being ‘drawn towards’ ideas they love, or of being “repelled” by the things they hate – as if it is the ideas themselves that exert an irresistible (emotional) attraction. Indeed, the evidence from our study strongly supports the notion that memes are emotionally supercharged ideas that attract and recruit people by firing up strong emotions.

2. We want to belong to really great ideas

When great ideas ‘recruit’ us it creates a sense of shared ownership: of the idea belonging to us, but also of us belonging to the idea. Think of great brand tribes like Coke and Nike. People queue up all night outside the Apple store to get the new iGizmo because they want to be part of  (belong to) something special. Indeed, the reason that marketers value the idea of ‘identification’ with brands so highly is that it implies a merging of the consumer with the brand.  Thus it is no coincidence that the ten or so most infectious objects in both the US and UK have extremely good ratings for proximity (‘seem to speak to me directly’) This empathy is crucial because infectious ideas need to connect with people, and it follows that ideas that fail to connect will not fulfil their infectious potential

3. Energy and excitement are the key drivers of infectiousness

We often speak of infectious ideas as having a  ‘have a life of their own’ - some inner energy that propels them through the population. We talk about ideas “really going somewhere”, or “going nowhere”, and tiredness and lethargy are metaphors for ideas that are failing. Our study shows conclusively that the most socially infectious objects are those most strongly imbued with a sense of energy and excitementbecause it is these qualities that inspire us to share ideas with others.

4. Truly great ideas create numinosity (inspiration and awe)

Truly infectious ideas often seem to have something more, something indefinable. There are some ideas, people and objects seem almost to hold us in their thrall. A 19th century German writer coined the term “numinosity” to describe the feeling of helpless awe that we feel in the presence of something so special and powerful that it seems to transcend normal (rational) experience.

Of course, Apple is not a religion, yet many of its followers ‘believe’ in the power of its products and become evangelists for them. The power of truly inspirational or ‘numinous’ ideas such as Apple manifests itself in our desire to identify with them and to spread the word on their behalf. It is that sense of inspiration excitement and awe that has made the Apple brand so infectious.