I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how things go viral in the Internet era. It just so happens that the timing of my musing has been very close to Fast Company publishing the highly debated results of its Influence Project. Let me start by saying, I don’t believe that anyone, including pundits Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell, have a really good understanding of how and why things go viral. As traders on Wall Street or sports teams often do, marketers underestimate the role of randomness in the spread of memes.
The notion of Influentials is seductive because it instills a false sense of control while simultaneously promising a better and more reliable return on marketing dollars spent. I think Influentials undeniably exist, just perhaps not in quite the same form or as abundantly as some might have originally conceived. Duncan Watt’s has argued rather persuasively that the statistical evidence and computer modeling do not support the popular theories on Influentials. He’s developed something of a hybrid approach to instigating an ideavirus that employs some familiar mass marketing tactics, such as the banner ad.
Ultimately I think marketers are at the point in their understanding of virality where product developers were a few years back when the evangelists for design thinking sprung on the scene to dispel the mysteries of innovation. Innovation is something like a chemical reaction. At first glance it may seem to happen almost spontaneously, as though through some magic, but once understood chemical reactions can be manipulated by catalysts and strung together in a series of reactions to get desired compounds. The study of innovation has lead to the identification of factors (e.g. catalysts) that help promote innovation. Consulting firms have even begun promising predictable results using a (semi)structured, repeatable approach to innovation. Similarly, I think we can identify some guiding principles of viral marketing:
- Enhance the network Offer something that’s to be desired from being part of the network. This one seems obvious, but the hard part is articulating the actual benefit. A YouTube video makes you laugh (see Antoine Dodson auto-tuned). Groupon offers a really good deal at a local store. SoHo House offers the chance to be part of something exclusive. What’s being passed on through the network has to have some intrinsic value to the network, which ties in with Jonah Peretti’s point about finding the right network.
- Enhance the individual’s position within the network Humans are social animals, wired through evolution to enjoy and, however unconsciously, seek out power and esteem. Whether it’s Foursquare mayorships or Yelp review awards, social media plays on this evolutionary desire in a variety of ways, and it’s not unique to social media either. Jesse Schell’s talk on how games are permeating society went viral itself. The flip side has to be respected too. Frequent Facebook Wall posts from games aren’t an effective viral strategy because they turn players into spam engines, damaging their position in their Facebook friend network. People are more likely to dismiss what they have to share as unwanted, unwelcome spam. Great networkers understand that they have to be discerning about how they use their network to preserve their access to it.
- Focus on intrinsic motivations and avoid extrinsic rewards I think this principle relates to Dan Pink’s finding about workplace motivators. Extrinsic rewards can actually diminish the satisfaction people derive from the autonomy, mastery and purpose intrinsic to their work. Extrinsic rewards can make customers suspicious, of the company offering the reward and the person in their network seeking the reward. The example of Pay with a Tweet is a particularly interesting case to consider though. There seems to be an extrinsic reward involved but they’ve integrated it so seamlessly with the consumption experience that it feels natural and goes almost unnoticed.
- Be porous Maximize the access points to the network. Make it easy to bring valuable things into the network and to share valuable things outside of the network. It’s precisely what Facebook has done with its “Share on Facebook” booklets, “Like” buttons and device apps. It’s what Apple and iTunes has gotten wrong with Ping.I’m a big music fan but it’s too hard for me to share music I like with my friends. No one seems to have gotten it quite right yet (at least in the US).
- Make it sticky Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith have taken the ideas that the Heath brothers first articulated years ago and applied them to spurring action through social media. Their goals are more ambitious – changing the world – but the same principles apply to spreading something virally. Where the Heaths used the acronym SUCCES, Aaker and Smith use the four pillars: Focus, Grab Attention, Engage, and Take Action. Focus means keeping it simple (“S” for simple). Grab attention by revealing something surprising or appealing to human curiosity (“U” for unexpected). Engage on an emotional level because emotions are critical to human decision making (“E” for emotions). I think concreteness, credibility and stories can be equally as instrumental to ultimately incite the action to spread the meme on through the network.
Surely there are other principles we can identify, but that’s a start. I’d welcome hearing others thoughts.