Three words that make me cringe: "Make it viral"…

May 17th, 2010

[Here’s a sneak peak of an upcoming Herald post]

It’s as if you snap your fingers and wham you’re idea has gone viral. At least that’s what clients seem to expect. And as such the three words, “make it viral” get appended to a brief.

That’s all fine and good but hey, how often do things actually go viral? 24 hours of video is uploaded every minute to YouTube and growing. But only a very tiny miniscule percentage of those go viral.

So what actually does going viral mean? Wikipedia to the rescue sums it up beautifully:

“The buzzwords viral marketing and viral advertising refer to marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of pathological and computer viruses. It can be word-of-mouth delivered or enhanced by the network effects of the Internet.[1] Viral promotions may take the form of video clips, interactive Flash games, advergames, ebooks, brandable software, images, or eventext messages.”

Every marketer will give you their view on what it takes to go viral, however I like to get scientific with it. As mentioned above the phenomenon is based on viruses, so what makes a pathological virus tick? How do you get an idea to replicate itself?

I have my own description but for the purposes of this post, let’s lean on HowStuffWork’s content.

“Regardless of the type of host cell, all viruses follow the same basic steps in what is known as the lytic cycle .
A virus particle attaches to a host cell.
The particle releases its genetic instructions into the host cell.
The injected genetic material recruits the host cell’s enzymes.
The enzymes make parts for more new virus particles.
The new particles assemble the parts into new viruses.
The new particles break free from the host cell.

So what does this mean for marketers?
Well a virus is only one or two genetic sequences, it relies on the host cell to finish the process. In other words keep the story short and let the receiver interpret and built it out. In other words you start it, the receiver finishes it.

Further your message needs to be in the right place at the right time to attach to a host (and receive it). Virus can then infect the person and carry on.

There are varables which ‘halt’ the process, ie antibodies and frequency. If the virus (or idea) is not new to the subject, they have a latent repulsion to it, that is they are less likely to be overcome by the virus and spread it. This is often the hinging component in viral marketing, is this idea novel enough to our market? As if it isn’t it won’t spread. It needs to be different enough to overcome the antibodies.

Frequency of infection is also something else to consider, if you are constantly surrounded by sick people you are also likely to get sick. Marketers need to consider the frequency of which they expose people to their message.

Then the virus will spread. You can then achieve a ‘viral effect’. However even in this case, you don’t want everyone to be infected with your idea, you just want a target market to be. It’s a waste of time and resources to try and attract people who have no interest in your topic. This is where companies have a real opportunity to infect a hive of people with their idea.

Narrow down your market, make it super specific, then apply the methodology above. You are far more likely to get a viral effect, I know it won’t have the millions of views that boost your ego but hey effective communication is going to help you out more than being popular on YouTube for 15 minutes of fame.

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2 Responses to “Three words that make me cringe: "Make it viral"…”

  1. Sam Farrow Says:

    We’ve been looking at using Facebook Connect for an upcoming platform launch and this has led to an interesting perspective on virality which is the relationship between percentage conversion and number of views of a particular engagement.

    That is if views of an engagement through a social media platform exceed 100 and the conversion rate is greater than 1% – the number of engagements will increase exponentially until saturation, just like a virus.

  2. Charlie Says:

    Anything random can go viral – in fact, the less it makes sense the more likely it will.

    But, and here is the rub, at what expense?

    First, you may end up with a very tenuous message, a tiny sliver of brand exposure and little else to show for it.

    Second, next time you’ll have to come back more crazy, cleverer – even more infectious – in order to steal that attention again.

    Third, you are still using up attention – not for your brand, exactly, but for that class of messaging. When people respond “oh another viral, delete” don’t be surprised.

    It is vital to understand the behavioural motivation behind sharing (the vector of ‘infection’). In my opinion this is part of our inherent social framework. In short, the decision narrative is “This information is of wider value, if I share this with my peer group I am demonstrating my value to the group, and consequently my perceived value will increase (to my future benefit)”.

    In short, people share because they want to be useful, funny, knowledgeable, cool or interesting.

    Make it easy for them to make this decision and your content will spread.

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