This blog post serves as an introduction to the Kindle Book “Experts on Viral Marketing: How to BUILD Viral Content” available now from Amazon. The book offers a more thorough examination of the expert perspectives and research given here in addition to a comprehensive discussion of the BUILD framework for creating viral marketing campaigns.
When videos, images, emails, jokes, and other products and ideas are consumed and shared in an exponentially increasing manner, they are said to have ‘gone viral’. Viral marketing is broadly defined as any marketing tactic which aims to capitalise on the viral phenomenon by encouraging consumers to spread products, ideas or brand messages to other consumers in an ever-increasing manner.
Before the advent of viral marketing in the digital age, the term ‘word of mouth’ was used to describe how ideas spread from individual to individual. Ferguson suggests the distinction between word of mouth marketing and viral marketing is that viral marketing plays the role of instigator, usually through a digital form like a popular blog, while positive word of mouth is what actually leads to customer acquisition. Indeed, it has been suggested that as much as 93% of word of mouth takes place offline and is responsible for up to 50% of all purchasing decisions. According to Godin, however, word of mouth spreads slowly and dies quickly. Viral marketing, then, could be considered the catalyst for generating offline conversations rather than a complete marketing strategy on its own.
In my book Experts on Viral Marketing: How to BUILD Viral Content, the concept of viral marketing is critically analysed to discover if a single approach to viral marketing exists and how marketers can implement such a strategy.
It outlines different expert perspectives on the topic of viral marketing and is organized in chronological order as follows: 1) Malcolm Gladwell’s views on the importance of influential people in The Tipping Point and Seth Godin’s recommendation to build extraordinary ideas in Unleashing the Ideavirus; 2) The diverse views expressed in Duncan Watts’ work on the importance of social seeding strategies and Chip and Dan Heath’s principles on how to create memorable ideas in Made To Stick; and 3) Jonah Berger’s recent work in Contagious: Why Things Catch On, which advocates the importance of content.
The third section draws upon academic research and industry discussions to suggest a new framework, BUILD, which offers marketers a set of five principles for viral marketing success.
Viral Marketing Examples
Videos play a key role in viral marketing. Speaking about the future of content marketing, Trimble stated: “With online video quickly becoming a key means for people to satisfy their information and entertainment needs, small businesses that fail to include it in their internet marketing strategies will do so at their peril”.
Evian’s famous “Roller Babies” ad in 2009 featured computer-generated babies performing stunts on roller skates in one of the world’s first YouTube-exclusive branded campaigns. The viral video was watched over 25 million times in less than two months, earning it the world record for the most viewed online ad ever. A 2012 study by digital marketing training firm, Digital Training Academy, found that more than 44% of the estimated 102 million total views could be attributed to views from social media websites.
Evian’s Roller Babies (2009)
Malcolm Gladwell on the Importance of Influential People
Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference aims to prove that going viral depends heavily on certain kinds of people with the social skills necessary to make content popular.
The Law of the Few is the term used to describe the unique groups of people responsible for causing an influential trend. These groups are further classified as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.
The Stickiness Factor states that messages must be easy to remember and drive people to perform certain behaviours in the future, while the Power of Context is the notion that people are influenced by even the slightest changes to their environment.
Although Gladwell recognises the importance of the message and its context, he encourages companies to concentrate the majority of marketing resources on finding and skilfully managing unique influencers.
Seth Godin on Unleashing an Ideavirus
Unleashing the Ideavirus: Stop Marketing AT People! Turn Your Ideas into Epidemics by Helping Your Customers Do the Marketing thing for You. is Seth Godin’s perspective on how word of mouth in the digital environment drives an idea towards becoming an ideavirus – “an idea that moves and grows and infects everyone it touches”.
Godin outlines eight values that almost every ideavirus possesses:
- Sneezers are the first to transmit the product or idea to others and do so in order to build or maintain their social standing among followers.
- An ideavirus is typically created with the target audience already chosen.
- Velocity is the rate at which the idea reaches more and more people.
- The vector describes the reasons why ideas are spread from person to person based on environment, personal interests, and medium.
- The choice of medium plays an important part in how sneezers are able to share the idea.
- Smoothness describes how easy it is for sneezers and end users to spread an idea.
- Persistence is the length of time an idea has to remain in the spotlight before it can become an ideavirus.
- An ideavirus succeeds in a system that amplifies positive word of mouth and mutes the negative.
Duncan Watts on the Importance of Social Networks
Duncan Watts posits that products and ideas become trends only if a network structure facilitates its exposure; if not then the product or idea will die.
Watts contends that it is incredibly difficult to implement viral marketing on a regular basis, and argues that Big Seed Marketing (BSM) offers companies a less risky and more predictable viral marketing strategy.
BSM is the approach that selects a large number of people and provides them with the necessary tools for them to spread the idea or message. For Watts, even if the people receiving the message pass it on to just one other person, or even an average of less than one person, then the message will still have reached a large number of people.
Chip and Dan Heath on the Importance of Stickiness
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die is positioned as a development of Gladwell’s Stickiness Factor, in which ideas that are easy to remember and drive future behaviours are more prone to tipping.
The authors researched scores of viral ideas and found that the approach to making an idea stick is to follow these six principles.
- Simplicity describes the goal of stripping down an idea to its core; determining the single most important message.
- Unexpectedness is about grabbing an audience’s attention by surprising them in some unexpected way.
- Concreteness is the notion that a message employing concrete and easily-understandable language has more chance to stick in the minds of the audience.
- Credibility defines several strategies to make ideas believable.
- Emotions is about appealing to a person’s self-interest and moving them to care about the idea.
- Stories embodies the other five principles. The most memorable stories are naturally simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and emotion-laden.
Jonah Berger on the Importance of Content
Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On supports content as the main force behind viral marketing. Berger’s six principles of viral marketing strike many similarities with the SUCCESs framework.
- Social currency means developing content that makes the people who share that content look good within their social circles.
- Triggers explains the need to embed some form of prompt within the message so that certain stimuli in the environment will trigger recollection of the message.
- Emotion describes messages and ideas that evoke emotion in all who see them and lead to sharing.
- Public describes the need for content to be easily seen. Visibility is key for people to pass on a message or idea.
- Practical value focuses on how the receiver benefits from a shared message, product or idea.
- Stories proposes the psychological idea that people make sense of information through stories and not by information alone.
Analysis of Expert Opinions
Industry experts are highly regarded for their ability to make sense of viral phenomena and explain it in an engaging way, but they rarely have first-hand experience in prompting a viral success. With the benefit of hindsight, Gladwell, Godin, the Heath brothers, and Berger are able to single out any past viral hit and apply their own particular set of principles to explain why it was successful.
Gladwell’s theory of influentials was questioned by Watts, who argued that anyone in a social network can have an influence in making ideas go viral. Watts’ methodological criticism of Gladwell’s approach is based on the circular logic he uses to explain why the examples in his book tipped into epidemics; relying on the fact that they tipped as sufficient justification for his argument.
Godin, the Heath brothers, and Berger contend that viral marketing activity should focus on content; “True viral marketing happens not when the marketer plans for it or targets bloggers or skateboarders or pirates with goatees, but when the item/service/event is worth talking about”.
Made to Stick provides the insights into what makes ideas stick in the minds of consumers. Yet it was not until the release of Contagious: Why Things Catch On that marketers were able to get a concrete action plan for making ideas go viral by creating content that people want to share with others. However, Berger’s reasoning, applying commonsensical logic to neatly explain why his examples were successful, also falls prey to the methodological issues Watts has with Gladwell’s work. Watts suggests that the way to lessen the effects of hindsight bias is to accurately measure every factor behind both successful and unsuccessful ideas: “We must rely less on our common sense and more on what we can measure”.
Duncan Watts – The Myth of Common Sense (2011)
While producing detailed, transparent, and justifiable reports of all relevant past examples is an almost impossible task, it may be the only way to validate reasoning for viral marketing activity. Fortunately, empirical studies, such as those performed by Dr. Nelson-Field at the University of South Australia’s Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, can quantitatively assess the reasons why some products and ideas go viral while others do not.
Improving the Chances of Going Viral
The BUILD framework was developed upon five principles taken from the above analysis of expert insights and industry research. It includes:
- Build great products. The first approach to capturing attention and prompting people to share is to create great products and extraordinary ideas.
- Utilise targeted communication networks. Companies have two options: 1) Follow Gladwell’s theory to find influential people; or 2) Follow Watts’ theory and encourage a large seed to share the product or idea.
- Intended messages remain intact. Products and ideas which include stories but are not easily altered, such as videos and software, may be most suitable for viral marketing.
- Lives on through persistence. Future viral marketing campaigns positively impact the success of the marketing efforts.
- Data collection. True viral marketing also incorporates a system for collecting information from those who receive and share the product or idea.
Methodological preparations for the BUILD framework are not without precedent. Adam Mills’ SPIN conceptual model of virality in social media provides further justification of certain BUILD principles.
Authors are masterful storytellers; a likely cause of their popularity. What makes viral content is rarely known in advance, however.
The fact is that companies will often produce hundreds of ideas before finding success with one of them, while many others will produce a viral hit by accident thanks to the uniqueness of their product or idea.
Based on the principles found in the bestselling works studied within my book and empirical studies of online videos, the BUILD framework has been proposed to help increase the possibility of your products and ideas going viral.
1. Wilson, R. (May 10, 2012). The Six Simple Principles Of Viral Marketing. Webmarketingtoday.com
9. Trimble, C. (July 30, 2015). Why Online Video Is The Future Of Content Marketing. Theguardian.com
10. Ankeny, J. (April 23, 2014). How These 10 Marketing Campaigns Became Viral Hits. Entrepreneur.com
11. Digital Training Academy (2012). Evian’s Roller Babies: The Viral Video That Rocked So Viciously. Digitaltrainingacademy.com
15. Godin, S. (September 5, 2007). Yet Another Frontier Ruined.Sethgodin.typepad.com