Viral marketing is the holy grail of social public relations and online media.
As a frequent consumer of social media you probably have a six sense for viral hits. You see a new video, news story or infographic and your first thought is, “I’ve got to share this!” And when you’re the first one of your friend group to distribute the day’s top story you feel a small sense of accomplishment. It’s OK. Admit it.Make something irresistible enough and people will share it with their friends, friends of friends, and soon millions of people will have participated in your public relations campaign. And the best part of viral distribution is that its earned, not owned or paid.
Viral marketing is an extremely calculated effort to tap into human psychology to take advantage of our natural tendencies to share. There’s nothing wrong this, and you should put the power of virality to work for your startup or small business.
All it takes is a little practice.
How do I make a viral hit?
There’s a science to making just about anything go viral. It’s not complicated.
Virality is methodical, predictable and even mundane. If a 12-year-old girl and her younger siblings can make a viral hit you certainly can. Follow a simple, six-step formula and you be off to the races.
How to make any idea go viral in six simple S.T.E.P.P.S
Jonah Berger recently published the definitive book on of virality, ‘Contagious: Why Things Catch On. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. Berger is the James G. Campbell Associate Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and his writing style is both breezy and power-packed. In a recent LinkedIn Today post Berger summarized the thesis behind ‘Contagious’:
The next time someone tells you that going viral is about luck, politely tell them that there is a better way. Science. Word of mouth isn’t random and it’s not magic. By understanding why people talk and share, we can craft contagious content. And use it to get our own products and ideas to catch on.
Is it really that easy? Yes. Berger distills the process of virality to six simple concepts, which he call S.T.E.P.P.S.
- Social Capital–Something that makes you look good for sharing with others
- Triggers–Images, words or objects that make you think about the idea or product to be shared
- Emotion–Joy and anger are especially powerful drivers of sharing activity
- Public–Anything that can be seen easily. You can’t share what you can’t see/experience
- Practical Value–similar to Social Currency, it’s useful information that other people should know
- Stories–So-called ‘Trojan Horses” that carry lessons and useful data in digestible form
In his book Berger describes how a $100 cheese steak helped a Philadelphia steak house break out in competitive restaurant scene. He also uncovers the thought process behind Steve Jobs’ decision to put the Apple logo right side-up-on the back of your laptop. I encourage you to buy the book if you want to have your mind blown, and your startup public relations turbo-charged.
Watch an idea go viral in real-time
Sasquatch Festival is one of the coolest events in one of the most beautiful venues in the world. (As a Washingtonian I’m clearly not biased) By today’s standards the video is not hugely viral–with only has 7 million views–but perhaps this is because it was shot and uploaded in 2009.
The below clip is a fantastic opportunity to apply Berger’s six S.T.E.P.P.S. to an event in real-time.
The scene starts innocently enough. “Look at this train wreck!” someone thinks, and starts filming with his or her iPhone. “When I share this with my friends they’ll think I’m so cool.”
Loud music makes you want to dance, especially when other people are around.
Dancing is fun. Especially at a festival. Who doesn’t like fun?
All these people can see me having way more fun than them. Wheeee!
Then something strange happens: More people start to join in, and all of a sudden you have a party.
Are you here to have a good time or not? Stop wasting time looking cool. Shake your money maker!
“Remember when we went to Sasquatch Music Festival and we started dancing with that lone weirdo, and it turned into a viral video?”
“Yeah, I remember that. We’re part of Internet history now.”
Berger never says virality has to happen in a sequence, but all the elements must be present. And the video highlights one of the strongest propellants of virality; FOMO–the fear of missing out.
We look to other humans for clues about what we should be doing and what behaviors to imitate. It’s a deeply-ingrained survival mechanism. Once people start sharing, we feel compelled to share too.
The difference between viral and massively-viral
Making any idea viral is no more complicated that following the six steps listed above, but there’s a difference between viral and massively-viral. A viral concept can be engineered reliably. Massively-viral hits are extremely rare, and should never be guaranteed. Gangnam Style is close to reaching 2 billion views on YouTube, but no other human artifact has ever reached such megaviral status. Trying to outdo PSY is a fool’s errand.
In our Internet era we’ve wasted tons of time reinventing the wheel, and re-learning human psychology. Master marketers like Seth Godin may introduce new phrases to our vocabulary like “permission marketing,” but at best it’s a new slant on something that is already intimately familiar. That’s why it works.