The “Well-Actually” Graph: How Ideas Spread into society, and where new ideas can be injected.

For five years I worked for the agriculture company Monsanto. At the time, Monsanto had a reputation for being an evil company. Even I had that perception prior to working there and really only took the interview for the job because I thought it was like getting a tour of North Korea… as long as you got out alive- you would have a hell of a story to tell.

But I realized when the position was offered to me, that one of two things was true- either this company was as evil as everyone said that it was, in which case I would have an inside view and after a short time could write the greatest tell-all-book of all time. Or, that this was a deeply misunderstood company and even though they were growing food more bountifully than in the history of civilization, people were afraid and angry about how their food was being produced, and no one knew how to change that perception. Meaning that I had stumbled upon one of the most important communication problems in the history of modern civilization.

Regardless of the conclusions I reached about Monsanto, something became very clear to me early in my tenure. People had received opinions about the company that were so deeply embedded in their thinking, that almost no one could recall when they came to their conclusions about the company, they believed it as though it were something they had always known.

So I began to wonder how ideas spread into a society, and over time began to develop a hypothesis that I would draw for scientists and engineers when I would visit them, to explain how I thought Monsanto developed the reputation that they had and what I was proposing that we should do to change that reputation.

Everyone had a dry erase board in their office at Monsanto so it was a good way to talk through my hypothesis.

It begins with two axis

On the y-axis we will say that all ideas have some discreet amount of value.

On the x-axis we will plot it against the number of people that “know” that idea.

So let’s imagine you are at Monsanto doing really hard core R&D and PING you discover something totally new about seed genetics. The number of people that know that idea is very low, but the value of knowing the information is high because of what you can do with that information. (Fig 1)

But just like a stock tip, the value of knowing that piece of information is most valuable to trade on if very few people know it, so as the information spreads out to more and more people the value of knowing that idea earlier than other people goes down. (See branching illustration)

And we can watch it go down until I get a phone call from my 70 year old mother and she says “Vance I was listening to CNN/FOX/MSNBC and I heard about this new seed technology.” (Fig 2)

When I am presenting this hypothesis in person here is where I usually take a break to tell about the time I showed this graph to an old grain trader. He stopped me, stood up and took the dry-erase marker from my hand and said “you know what Vance, you are right, and as a company when bad news comes out about us, we usually wait until here, to respond to these ideas….” And he drew a line all the way to the very edge of the white board. (Fig 3)

The old grain trader was exactly right. This graph was true on how people learned good things about the company, and how stories about how evil the company was spread into society. By waiting until the information had spread into every recess of culture the company was now in the position of having to change what people “knew.”

So we needed to develop a strategy that allowed us to go up-the-graph and get ideas into society that were different. Now, if we only go back up the graph as far as CNN/FOX/MSNBC and we try to buy advertisements or get on those shows, we have to realize that we are competing with literally everyone else in the world that wants my mother’s attention.

This means that trying to change opinions so far down the graph was extremely expensive because you are competing with Tide clothing detergent, political candidates, cookies and crackers and everyone else that wants to imprint an idea on anyone in the general population.

Although Monsanto was the largest seed company in the world, there was virtually no marketing budget for “culture change,” because the real money was being spent selling seeds and herbicides to farmers. We could not compete at the bottom of the graph with advertising dollars and so we had to adjust to create a strategy that placed us where competition for attention was lower and yet would still eventually reach mass audiences that were “down-the-graph.”

The only decision is to move “up-the graph” to outlets with smaller audiences. We invited Vice News in (that went poorly), Mother Jones, Intelligence Squared, and a Reddit AMA. While moving up-the-graph the audience got smaller and smaller but the depth with which the audience wanted to understand the idea got deeper and deeper. (Fig 4)

The curve is a Pareto distribution, and at the point where the slope of the line goes begins to orient straight upwards is the next point that I like to mark on the graph. It is here where I illustrate the inflection point between when an idea is tribal (only known by a relatively small group or groups of people that share similar values, concepts and information) and the large masses of people that are receivers of information.

This inflection point is something you have felt hundreds of times before when you are at a party talking about whatever the news of the day is. There is always that one person that is listening to what everyone is saying waiting for a pause in the conversation when they can break in with a “Well-Actually” where they use whatever information they gleaned from higher up the graph to explain to others their perspective. This “well-actually” person is arbitraging the value of ideas they heard from a smaller, deeper source and spreading it out to others further down the graph. (Fig 5)

This “well-actually” role is a good marker for the point that you must get above if you are to disseminate information that you want to reach society. From here you can get ideas high enough up the graph, they will tumble down as individuals try to arbitrage value. We call this “up-the-graph.”

However getting too far up the graph is as self defeating as trying to inject ideas too far down the graph because you can get into pockets of experts that are so obscure that it is unlikely that you can successfully identify what will be propelled down the graph to a wider societal audience.

Now when I was delivering this to corporate audiences I would stop at this point in the presentation. It was a compelling argument; focus on small audience news outlets and use that as a way to get information circulators to push your ideas into the world. The horse was sold, permission granted so that I could try atypical strategies and not be held to traditional metrics. It was a smart strategy and it allowed me to think more in guerrilla tactical terms.

Instead of trying to land large numbers of people I focused my time on an r/science Reddit AMA (that ultimately got more views than a Super Bowl ad our advertising team ran that same year, I spoke to twelve journalists attending the Knight Science fellows at MIT, and became a guest on podcasts across the spectrum that later got me invited on a speaking tour across Europe. We focused on smaller but deep audiences, and before long started seeing our ideas down the graph below the “Well-Actually” point.

The biggest challenge to describing this graph is that once you get above the “Well-Actually” point, is that the reality is, there is not a single mountain to where information is magically discovered and resides, but instead you are heading up one of an infinite number of peaks. The Well-Actually point marks something more akin to being in the foothills, most people are incapable of venturing up above the tree line and cannot distinguish one peak from another.

From here the discussion would turn towards which tribes would be the most likely to find value from engaging with us. I will describe this part, which we called the “Tribes Strategy” at another point.

Originally published at https://articulate.ventures on February 15, 2021.

Communications consultant that has worked for corporations and international organizations around the world — sharing conversations and knowledge learned.

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