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Viral Marketing: How to Stack the Odds in Your Favour

Going Viral Social Media ComicViral content is the holy grail of digital marketing. With one fell swoop, you can increase brand awareness a thousand fold, generate tonnes of traffic, and get untold natural links. All you need is an article, infographic, or video that resonates with the online masses, making them share it again and again and again. Simple.

If only.

Digital marketers know that nothing online is simple. And if there is one lesson that has been learnt time and again, it’s that specifically engineered content often doesn’t go viral. Web users don’t like to be manipulated in that way. Also, people are fickle and capricious – you never know what is going to be a hit and what isn’t. For example, who could have predicted the wild success of Charlie the finger-biter?

Charlie may not be the most successful viral video of all time, but it is a great (and often cited) example of what can happen if you strike it lucky. The video, which was posted in March 2007, currently has 587,860,560 views, 1,124,612 likes, and only 168,212 thumbs down. It’s made it onto TV shows, it’s spawned parodies, it’s been autotuned, and by December 2012 it had earned the family in the region of $500,000.

It’s this kind of success that frustrates marketers because it was wholly unintended. Dad just wanted to share a slice of family life with the kids’ godfather. There was no strategy, no script, and no seeding – just dumb luck.

It has, however, served a purpose, as researchers from all backgrounds (including psychology and marketing) have analysed it and other popular viral content to try find out exactly what makes an article, infographic or video wildly successful. The findings have generally been consistent, which is good news for marketers because it gives them something concrete to work with.

We’re going to look at some of the findings so you can stack the odds of success in your favour.

The emotions have it

Possibly the single biggest predicator of viral success is the content’s ability to move people emotionally. You need to aim for high-arousal emotions, which include awe, anger, anxiety, fear, joy, lust, and surprise and shock.

Kelsey Libert, from Fractl wrote an excellent article on what makes content viral which appeared on Moz Blog. When it comes to emotions, she talks about the importance of engaging your audience so that they are motivated to share your content. She cites research conducted by Fractl which, among other things, narrowed down the top 10 emotions in viral content, as well as the bottom 10. The top 10 emotions are all positive and the bottom 10 emotions are all negative. This supports other findings (including those by the revered Jonah Berger) that positive content is more likely to go viral than negative content.

The top 10 emotions are:

1)     Amusement

2)     Interest

3)     Surprise

4)     Happiness

5)     Delight

6)     Pleasure

7)     Joy

8)     Hope

9)     Affection

10)  Excitement

The bottom 10:

1)     Anger

2)     Politeness

3)     Frustration

4)     Doubt

5)     Embarrassment

6)     Despair

7)     Hurt

8)     Guilt

9)     Contempt

10)  Shame

This is logical when you think about it. After all, you’d probably rather share something that makes you laugh because you want your friends to laugh too, but you might think twice about sharing something that causes despair because you don’t want to subject your friends to the same negativity. This touches on the reasons that people share content, which we’ll look at shortly.

If you are going to use negative emotions then you’re best bets are anger and anxiety.

Different studies yield different results, however, so it’s worth mentioning that according to Carson Ward, anger is the most viral emotion, followed by awe and anxiety. So, not much positivity there. Aaron Rocket, from the Mercian University School of Communication, conducted a study called “Creating Seed Networks and Video Content to go Viral”, and he found that the most dominant emotion is surprise. It’s even better when surprise is coupled with another high-arousal emotion, particularly joy. So, we’re back to positivity.

Motivating factors

Eliciting strong emotions is all well and good, but you also have to make people want to share your content. In an article on KISSmetrics, Neil Davidson refers to Sally Hogshead’s seven triggers of fascination. If you can finger these triggers then content consumers are more likely to share your hard work.

The seven triggers are:

1)     Passion/lust. You can create passion or lust by creating an anticipation of pleasure and you do this by teasing consumers’ senses – all of them.

2)     Alarm. Use alarm to imply negative consequences if a certain action (sharing) is not carried out.

3)     Mystique. Never let it all hang out. People like an enigma, so you want to arouse their curiosity by giving them just enough to keep them hanging on. And just enough for them to want others to share their fascination.

4)     Power. Hogshead makes the very important point that it’s not always about holding onto power, sometimes it’s about willingly handing power over to others. If you can set yourself up as an authority (a ‘power’), then people will start to defer to you and share your words of wisdom.

5)     Prestige. How will sharing your content affect people’s status in their social circles? If it will earn them more respect or add to their reputation as the news-bringer, innovator, or clown, then they’re likely to share it. In marketing terms, it also relates to availability and accessibility. Limiting both increases the prestige of participation or engagement.

6)     Rebellion/vice. Tap into people’s desire to be a little bad. Everyone has an inner rebel that likes to be pandered to every once in a while. Give them an excuse to cross that line – provided that line doesn’t endanger them or anyone else physically or psychologically and doesn’t put them in conflict with the law. Don’t be irresponsible, for goodness’ sake.

7)     Trust. As much as people like surprise, they also like the familiar and the predictable. If you’re trying to promote brand awareness then you need to be consistent with your messages. This doesn’t mean that you should be boring and regurgitate the same old thing again and again. Instead, it means that the overall tone and feel of the messages should be consistent, so don’t try setting yourself up as a family-friendly brand, for instance, and then start issuing content that taps into vice.

According to Davidson, if you want to increase the viral potential of your content you need to fully understand the brand and then use the two triggers that will reflect that brand.

Davidson also mentions two other important sharing motivators:

  • Reciprocity. Either to fulfill an obligation (you sent me a hilarious video of a cat playing the piano, now I will send you a hilarious video of a cat in a tutu dancing to a piano concerto), or to create an obligation (I sent you this amazing video of people balancing stuff on their foreheads, now how are you going to amaze me and make my day?).
  • Altruism. A genuine need to be helpful – no reciprocity required.

Getting started

You have to be properly prepared before you can start creating viral content and that means a lot of research. Research takes place on two levels: research into your audience and research into your topic.

You have to really, really know your audience if you’re going to set off any of their triggers and engage them emotionally. In fact, you’ll have to identify the triggers that are most likely to work for your audience, and balance that with the triggers that will most benefit your brand.

Getting to know your audience includes knowing their demographic, their tastes, needs, and where you’ll find them online (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, niche websites, and influential blog sites).

Sage advice says that you should get under your audience’s skin (walk a mile in their shoes) to increase your understanding or empathy. Davidson says that one way to do this is to write a caricature of your typical customer. This helps to narrow your focus because it’s easier to create content with a specific person in mind than for a faceless public.

Libert says that you also need to be realistic in your assessment of your audience. She calls it the total available market – the people who will be genuinely interested in sharing your content, not just the people you think should be interested.

Set goals

Don’t create content for creating content’s sake. Set clearly defined goals. The more specific you are the better. Your goal may be to generate website traffic, which is admirable but rather vague. You can make it more specific by saying you want to generate 5000 unique visits to the red pleather boots page of your vegan shoes store.

But, you also want to make the goal realistic, so perhaps generating 500 unique visits to the boots parent page is the way to go.

Select the topic

Your topic needs to reflect the needs/wants of your audience. But that can’t be your only concern. You also need to consider whether you’re going to create a video, an infographic, an article, or a podcast. Certain topics are better suited to a particular format. Your topic can determine the medium, or the medium can play a part in determining the topic. Either way, the two are linked.

You also need to consider your resources. Do you have the budget to hire a company to make a quality video? If you’re going to keep it all in-house, do you have the people on hand who can write a script, hold a camera steady, and who are at ease in front of the camera? Do you have all the information you need to write an informative article or to create an interesting infographic? If not, do you know where you can find it?

Research the topic

One of the reasons people share content is because they find it useful, informative, or interesting. You can’t be useful, informative or interesting if you thumb suck your information, if you use outdated information, if you use the wrong information, or if you scrape the shallow surface of information that everyone already knows.

You should either have your own research on hand from studies you’ve conducted (like Libert) or from practical experience, or you should thoroughly research other people’s findings so that you fully understand the matter, including the possible reasons for contradictory results. You should make an effort to check the credibility of the authors and the validity of their studies. You don’t want to spout facts only to have some people comment on the idiocy of citing an industry pariah.

Do one brave thingDon’t be afraid to choose a niche topic. Mary Hamilton says that the power of niche topics is underestimated. Initially, you might only attract a limited audience, but people with niche interests know other people with niche interests, who know other people with niche interests, which means that content has a much larger pool than you might think. Another important point to consider is that a niche audience is more committed than the general populace, so you might want to use this approach for very specific goals.


Putting it all together

There are certain factors to consider when it comes to actually creating your content.

  • The title is everything

No, really, it’s everything. You only think you have a whole 10 seconds to capture your audience. You don’t. You have the 2 seconds it takes for them to scan the title. According to a study on viral videos by Tyler West, the most popular were those whose titles were only three words long. So, you need to come up with something snappy and descriptive using as few syllables as possible.

Titles should also be honest. Titles are like a promise and the content needs deliver on that promise. Consumers don’t like when the two don’t match.

  • Visual content is easy to consume

That’s one of the reasons why infographics are so well-received, and why videos are so popular. That’s not to say that the day of the long article is over. Far from it. In fact, according to Ward, research suggests that long articles are more likely to go viral than short ones – probably because people who get all the way to the end feel that the information was well worth the effort. What it does mean, however, is that you should use lots of images and easy-to-digest graphs and charts and diagrams as visual aids to your content.

In an article on Moz Blog, John Doherty says that posts with images are more likely to receive links than posts without images, and that posts with images and videos are dynamite.

This also refers to your structure and flow. You’ll lose consumers if the content doesn’t flow smoothly, if it’s jarring to the brain or eye.

The bottom line is that you need to put as much thought into how your content is going to look, as to what it’s going to contain.

Getting it out there

How you seed your content is important. You want to start prepping the environment before you launch your content. This involves writing some teasers on your blog, using social media to generate anticipation, issuing press releases, and, of course, selling the content to power-users in the field. This is a delicate matter that needs to be handled carefully. It’s a good idea to build a genuine relationship with power bloggers and social media users before expecting them to take your content into the stratosphere.

You can treat it as a straightforward business transaction, if you like, but building relationships is always more rewarding in the long run. It’s also more likely to get your content a positive reception – although it won’t guarantee a positive reception.

If you do manage to convince power-users to read and share your content, don’t assume that they will like it or be nice about it. Learn to roll with the punches.

Remember, as Libert says, the bigger the seed the sooner the viral effect will occur. Although, you should also remember that seeding can be a rollercoaster. Sometimes it will be picked up and people will run with it, then it will fade, only to be picked up again. Sometimes it won’t be picked up for weeks or months (years?) and suddenly a random person will find it, like it and share it and then it’s all over the net like no one’s business.

Make it easy to share – add all the requisite social media sharing buttons, and make it easily embeddable. You don’t want people to have to go to any trouble to share your content, because then they might not bother.

You win some, you lose some

It’s very important to note that even though you can nail every single element mentioned, content that you think has viral written all over it can still fizzle into nothingness. This is the nature of the web.

Don’t be discouraged when your amazing content fails to meet your goals. Learn what you can from the experience and get your butt back to the drawing board. There is a world wide web out there daring you to entertain it. Show it that you are up to the challenge.


Written by Sandy Cosser

Image credits:

Going Viral Social Media Comic: seanrnicholson, CC BY-ND 2.0, via Flickr

Do one brave thing: Pedro Vera (pvera), CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

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