I think small ideas tend to have most (if not all) of the following characteristics:
1. They tend to be in the service of people
Sounds like rule one of marketing, but too often we forget this (probably calling people 'consumers' doesn't help). Far too often we get narcissistic about the brand (people must be interested in what we make) rather than be humble, empathetic and interested in their lives.
As I've talked about before, the great brands today understand what people are interested in and work back from there. Great communication ideas act as a bridge. A bridge between what people are interested in and what you make/ sell. A bridge between your world and theirs; real life/culture and commerce.
2. They reduce friction
I wrote about this last month - how brands today seem to be learning from design and thinking about how they can remove friction between themselves and people; between what people do now and what they want them to do. Great examples of this are the Museum of London app from Brothers and Sisters that gets art out of the museum and in to people's hands, the Epic Mix app for Vail that uses RFID technology rather than check ins and even an idea like Battle of The Cheetos that created a game where people went online rather than try and get people to visit your own site (which is a fairly futile thing to do given the average Amercian goes to 3-5 sites a day).
3. They're one of many
This is something I've talked about for a while but still believe is critical - the need for brands to do lots of things, not one big thing. It ties back to the point about placing little bets and is about managing portfolios rather than playing roulette. Google is a great example of this type of prodigious brand - search to Google 411 to Chrome (the list goes on).
Creating brands built around a coherent stream of small ideas makes them stickier (the velcro analogy Russell Davies has used that I still think is an incredibly helpful metaphor) and more powerful - being the brand of new news and seen as having momentum and energy is the best leading indicator of future preference and usage. It also means you are more likely to thrive in a world where 95% of things die.
4. They do rather than say
It's about making communication products, not communicating a product
5. They build long ideas
The long idea is a brilliant thought first articulated (I think) by Jon Williams of Grey. The long idea is a better objective than the big idea. They're created by a stream of small ideas. It creates participation and realizes that the launch of the campaign is, in reality, the beginning. It creates real pervasiveness in culture
Tomorrow I'll write about how we can think, and make, small ideas