The SPREAD Framework Explained

Published on
February 6, 2023

The Cultural Currents Institute's proprietary SPREAD framework is ideal for testing and refining messages and strategies at the conceptual phase, diagnosing and troubleshooting campaigns that may be struggling after launch, and accelerating efforts that have already found some success. The core concepts of the framework are introduced here.

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The SPREAD Framework Explained
Written by
The Editorial Team
Cultural Currents Institute
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Introducing the SPREAD Framework

When formulating a campaign of public influence, it is essential to have a well-considered framework that takes into account the mechanisms by which ideas are inculcated into culture. We can consider an idea to have been successfully inculcated when it becomes self-reinforcing within the target population, requiring no further organized action to persist and spread.

CCI's proprietary SPREAD framework is ideal for testing and refining messages and strategies at the conceptual phase, diagnosing and troubleshooting campaigns that may be struggling after launch, and accelerating efforts that have already found some success. The core concepts of the framework are introduced below:

Simple to Remember and Share

For an idea to spread, it must be simple to receive, retain, and repeat. These "Three R's" constitute the SPREAD Cycle - a virtuous cycle that underpins virality. If the energy and attention costs are too high for the audience at any point in the SPREAD Cycle, the message will have no impact and will fail achieve organic spread through word of mouth.

The SPREAD Cycle

If an audience is diverse (that is, if members of the audience have relatively little cultural overlap) then the message must have a low informational density; the audience lacks the common language to elegantly convey an information-dense message. A more homogenous audience can tolerate greater message complexity because the members have more cultural overlap, and the message can efficiently build upon coded concepts common to the group context.

In-group jargon is a prime example of this effect, where esoteric language is used to efficiently express ideas not common to the general public. The more niche and developed the audience’s in-group culture, the more information can be coded in a message without sacrificing simplicity. If a communicator wishes to inculcate a more complex idea, it may be necessary to break it up into discrete ideas, introduced sequentially and later knitted together into a unified whole.

Remember that "simple" is subjective. Not everyone needs to get it - just the target audience. A good rule of thumb is that the primary message should be simple enough to fit in one concise sentence that can be understood by the audience in-group without further explanation.

Density Tolerance Spectrum

We grade simplicity on a three-tier system.

Comprehensible - A message must, at bare minimum, be within the ability of our audience to understand within reasonable time and attention constraints.

Explainable - A good straightforward message should be one that our audience could explain - and expand upon - if called upon to do so.

Repeatable - Of course no idea can truly become "viral" if it is not within our audience's ability to convey, unaided, to their peers.

Plausible to its Intended Audience

Whether or not a message is actually true, an audience will not internalize or share the message unless it feels true to them. As such, even scrupulously honest communicators must consider which external plausibility signals can be offered along with a given message. Media, professional organizations, influencers, and celebrities can all help to make a message seem more plausible. Studies, statistics, and polls can also help to provide credibility.

The more an idea disturbs an audience’s established understanding of the world, the more compelling the plausibility signals offered must be. In the words of the late Carl Sagan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For communicators, we might add that what counts as "evidence" varies wildly by audience.

Plausibility can be graded in three levels, from lowest to highest, as follows:

Believable - At base, a message must not raise the incredulity of its recipient.

Authoritative - Ideally a message will be viewed as the authoritative word to its audience. This can often be achieved by carefully selecting the messenger.

Common Knowledge - The gold standard of plausibility is for a message to be built upon concepts that are common knowledge in the target community. Such messages are accepted uncritically.

Plausibility Signal Requirement

Relatable to Common Lived Experience

In order for a message to gain ground with a given community, it must be clearly relatable to their lived experience. An individual is most likely to learn, internalize, and act upon a new concept if it immediately clear how it connects to their lived experience. This is one reason that representation is so important in advertising. By utilizing models, actors, and subjects that look and talk like a target audience, a communicator is building a relational bridge with them.

Similarly, it is important that a message builds upon beliefs that are relatable. It is exceptionally difficult to convince a person of something that challenges dearly held beliefs. Such persuasion is possible, but it requires tremendous time, attention, and energy from both parties. Confrontational persuasion reduces relatability if very high levels of rapport have not been built, and such efforts may backfire. In fact, the so-called backfire effect is a common psychological phenomenon in which a person presented with an evidence-based correction to a false belief reports an even stronger confidence in the false belief. If a message seems to agree with the audience’s previously held beliefs, however, it enjoys the benefit of the opposite effect: confirmation bias. A communicator who is aware of these effects will be cautious not to attempt to influence too radical a shift in audience paradigms. Instead, it is most effective to build steadily from the audience’s core axiomatic assumptions.

A message's relatability is graded by its relevance to the experiences and values of the intended audience, and their community.

Community - A message should at least build upon experiences and values that are present in the broader community being targeted.

Inner Circle - A higher standard is to draw a connection to the audience's inner circle - for example friends, family, peers, and close colleagues.

Deep and Personal - The best messages will relate deeply and personally to the individuals who compose the core audience.

Emotional and Evocative

In the attention economy, an emotional message is essential to capture and retain audience attention. An experience with high emotional content is not just better suited to capture and hold attention, it is also key to forming strong memories. Similarly, an evocative message will call strong emotional memories to mind, offering the opportunity to connect the message to deeply held recollections. When advertisers play to their audience’s nostalgia, for example, they are attempting to use emotionally evocative content to implant their message with the audience.

There are three key levels of emotional appeal.

Interesting - The lowest level of emotional appeal simply involves the content being interesting to consume. It is table stakes to making an emotional case.

Arresting - Content that stops the audience their tracks - for example a social media post that gets the user to stop scrolling - can be described as arresting.

Motivating - The most emotionally effective content should actually instill a desire to do something, opening them up to a suggested action.

Actionable With Clear Steps

If a message is not actionable, it cannot have any effect in the real world. Providing a clear, compelling, and realistic call-to-action (CTA) empowers audiences to become advocates. In order to determine whether a CTA is realistic, it is wise to consider the conditions under which they will be receiving your message. Ideally your chosen medium will align with audience behavior that is conducive to taking the intended action.

In general, actionability is graded by the immediacy of the action to be taken.

Abstract - An abstract CTA may inform non-specific future actions, but does not offer any concrete example of what the audience should do.

Future - A CTA may offer specificity, but if the desired action cannot be performed immediately then the impact is likely to diminish.

Immediate - An immediately actionable CTA to "like" "share" "donate" or "buy now" is ideal because it gives audiences an immediate outlet to express buy-in and become advocates.

Duplicable With Low Effort and High Fidelity

Generally a message cannot be expected to reach the widest possible audience through controlled channels, or those channels the communicator commands outright. Rather, the audience will have to be enlisted to spread the word. In the best case, the message can be repeated immediately with minimal effort and perfect fidelity (as in the case of a social media "share" button). Fidelity is important in order to avoid memetic drift, or the tendency of a message to mutate over time. While memetic drift may sometimes be beneficial (as when a message is adapted for greater applicability to the audience), most of the time it simply serves to water down the intended message. If technology cannot be relied upon for flawless duplication, then memory devices (for example acronyms, songs, and stories) can be considered.

Duplicability is measured in three levels.

Repeatable - That is, within the capacity of the target audience to share person to person, imperfectly, by word of mouth or similar means.

Manually Replicable - Some messages can be replicated effectively through a scalable but ultimately manual process (for example, by taking a picture and sending it to a friend).

Instant Automatic Replication - The gold standard, which has become common with the advent of social media, is instantaneous and perfect replication through the click of a button.

A Note on Message Seeding

Even the most skilled communicator must acknowledge that not every person who hears their message will become a vocal advocate. As such, any messaging campaign must reach a wide enough audience to convert a core of advocates large enough to become self-reinforcing. Exactly how large the initial distribution must be depends upon a variety of factors, including the size, cohesion, and temperament of the intended audience, and how compelling the message is.

Similarly, the message may require frequent repetition with the same audience to be adequately seeded and take hold. Repetition takes advantage of two powerful psychological phenomena: the spacing effect and the validity effect (also known as the illusory truth effect). The spacing effect refers to the tendency for people to retain memories better when they are exposed to the same information multiple times with space between each exposure. The validity effect refers to the tendency for something to feel more true the more often we hear it repeated.

A message that has taken sufficient root with an audience may become self-reinforcing, with audience members repeating the message organically at an accelerating rate. The closer a message comes to becoming self-reinforcing, the greater its momentum. The less momentum a message has, the more resources must be invested in repeatedly reinforcing it within the target audience - for example through ads, public relations efforts, etc.


Effecting widespread and durable cultural impact is difficult. It requires an intimate knowledge of the target audience, and a sober appreciation of the resources and timeline that may be needed. However, through an expert application of the SPREAD framework, practitioners can chart the most efficient strategy to win hearts and change minds.

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