Studying the impact of innovation on business and society

Redefining Viral Marketing

In September 2008 at Web 2.0 Expo in New York, I shared something that many, to this day, believe to the contrary, “There is no such thing as viral marketing.”

The declaration was empathetic in its direction to those marketers who have been on the receiving end of directives instructing them to create and unleash viral content. In parallel, the statement was aimed at those decision makers who assign such projects.

Content, no matter how brilliant, creative, abstract, or controversial, is not inherently viral. Yet, we’re asked repeatedly to create viral videos, posts, and other social objects that will trigger an endless array of retweets, pages and profiles that immediately attract fans and followers accompanied by a deafening wall of sound propelled by word of mouth.

Content doesn’t make something viral; people are the primary source of powering social objects across the attention nodes that connect the human network.

Despite what appears commonsensical, we’re surprised when our brainchild doesn’t attract the views, attention, and circulation we believe it deserves.

The reality of social media is this, in the attention economy, information isn’t randomly discovered and broadly disseminated. It is strategically positioned to either appear when someone searches for a related keyword or it’s presented to someone manually and deliberately.

As individuals, we no longer find information, it finds us.

The same is true about social objects. We must create packaged content with social hooks that comprise the story we wish to tell and the action we hope to spark – whether it’s through video, text, images, badges, widgets, or apps. While there is no such thing as viral marketing in and of itself, marketing inspired to catalyze word of mouth (WOMM) is a bit more thoughtful and calculated in its approach and it usually seeks options in and around Social Media.

Good Ideas are Worth Sharing

Ideas represent change whose time has come…

At the heart of any campaign is an idea. And even though good ideas are worth sharing, in order to have any hope of going “viral,” social objects require sustenance and herding. Essentially, our job is to not only create the content, but also connect the dots for those individuals who can help us spread our story across first degree relationships defining social graphs (friends) and second-degree graphs linked by friends of friends and so on.

Social scientist Dan Zarrella has analyzed over the years, why ideas spread. In his research, he discovered common characteristics of contagious content, those elements prevalent in many popular memes, whether organic or proactively marketed.


The first group of individuals who are exposed to the idea/social object determine the extent and reach of the meme. These “seeds” are often mistaken for built-in audiences, for example, Twitter followers, Facebook Fans, blog subscribers, email lists, etc. The true opportunity for extending the lifespan and audiences for ideas is to carefully pick influential individuals who can spark activity and response. Early involvement, prior to anything being released, is key as is the definition of the role they will play in the roll out of the content.


Distinctiveness is required for all transmittable ideas. Personal connections are also paramount. The personal motivation for sharing content is driven by how well something connects or resonates with the person exposed to it. Ideas connect initially because they’re relevant or personal. Other communicable emotions that factor into the motivation for sharing in a one-to-one model include:

1. Personal/Relevant/Timely

2. Humor

3. Utility

4. Relationship Building

5. Common Interests

6. Missing out

7. Conversations

8. Reciprocity

Association and Correlation

As Zarrella observes, intuitiveness is a key attribute for determining the likelihood for pass alongs. If someone can’t understand an idea, they simply will disregard it and move on. And in the era of the real-time Web, we move too quickly to further analyze or interpret ideas. Its intention and purpose must be clear from the onset. And to be quite honest, it’s our job to create compelling objects worthy of connection. Data shows that you have three-to-five seconds to engage your viewer and in that time they’ve already decided to either continue and possibly share the idea or simply abandon it.


In the attention economy, our focus is concentrated on what flows through our attention dashboards and we’re distracted at will as relevant content appears. As intelligent filtering tools are slowly emerging, human filtering still prevails. Through selective attention, we each possess the ability to tune out the volume of information that relentlessly attempts to lure our focus. Relevance is key to encouraging someone to take the time to purposely share content with those they know.

It is the art and science of creating content that appeals to people individually and also as groups of shared interests. This is why social media is social in the first place.

People connect with individuals who share their passions, interests, and ambitions. Designing social objects based on the psychographics rather than demographics of those you wish to reach and inspire, proves critical in the viability of engendering personal connections – connections worthy of sharing.


Give someone a fish; you have fed them for today. Teach them how to fish; and you have fed them for a lifetime…

While much of the content examples we hear and see so often are aimed at short bursts of entertainment, creating and distributing helpful content is contagious in its own right. Help me answer or ask a question. Help me find a reason to participate. Give me a voice. Help me do something I couldn’t do before I came into contact with your social object.

The idea of integrating utility or resolution into social objects increases the sharability of content while also increasing its lifespan.  Continually introducing useful content sets the foundation for invaluable relationships based on the theory of social exchange – those connected will grow with one another based on the ongoing exchange of ideas sparked by objects and conversations that flourish over time.

Social Influence – A Cascading Effect

Tying back to the importance of initial and repeated seeding, peer-to-peer influence sets the stage for perception, urgency, and also weaves the fabric that wraps us with a sense of exclusivity and inclusion. By aligning with those individuals who are recognized as leaders, trendsetters and authorities, an ambiance is established that carries with it the lure for affinity, belonging, and association, inviting individuals to “join the club” simply by viewing and sharing.

The reward for these influencers is that they’re perceived to stay ahead of trends. It’s rare when you see someone of this stature join later in the game. They’re usually on the prowl for the next undiscovered object that when disseminated, reinforces their reputation as an early adopter.

An element of wisdom of the crowds is also at play in the realm of social influence. There is an allure, an unspoken emanation of prestige when a group of people surround and react to content and objects. After all, if a person possesses crowds of qualified followers, readers or if a particular bit of content earns significant views, reactions, retweets, shares, and likes, then it has earned a state of prominence that begets validation. Communities literally form around objects and in doing so, they influence the actions of participants and spectators, now and over time.

Social objects should thus be supported before and during their release to garner attention, support, followers, and influential activity.

Information Voids

In the absence of truth or information, speculation fuels hearsay, which in turn sparks movement and ultimately gains momentum as new voices attempt to answer questions through conjecture. I refer to the introduction of an event or object as the information divide, the difference between the moment information is introduced into the social web and the time it takes to verify its accuracy. Therefore I ask, is content or context king in the real-time web? The same can be said for word of mouth marketing.

When information is intentionally missing or it’s positioned cleverly to incite speculation, social objects can spread across incredibly vast networks at blinding speeds. When BMW, for example, introduced its 1-Series, it did so through a video documentary (mockumentary) entitled “The Ramp” or “Rampenfest,” which chronicled a filmmaker’s visit to a small village where the town rallied around a record breaking attempt to launch a 1-Series BMW over the Atlantic. In doing so, BMW intentionally steered viewers towards wonderment. Was it really an attempt to cross the Atlantic? Was BMW behind this video? With every new question, more viewers and shares ensued.

Today, visiting takes you directly to the BMW 1-Series home page.

Experiences Cause Action

Social objects engender experiences. The difference between the failure and success of a meme is directly rooted in the resulting activity that they’re intended to cause. Perhaps the most powerful characteristic of social objects is their ability to masquerade as catalysts that carry cause and effect.

Strategic marketers will calculate what happens after the initial view and resulting share.

They’ll define the complete series of meaningful steps and then reverse engineer the process to design content that delivers a complete and directed experience.

Content can carry with it the ability to raise awareness and also incite change. It is done by appealing to the very people who align around the subject and in order to convince them, these social objects must carry personal and emotional messages that connect with the hearts and minds of participants. Affinity is driven by emotions, exacting the essence that inspires someone to support something they believe in and fusing it with the passions of others who also share in the mission. If the intention is supported through the content and as such, designed to further action, meaningful connections are then forged and replicated. We are after all, attempting to make human connections and they are, to say the least, priceless.

This is social media and word of mouth marketing with a purpose. And, it’s the most powerful form of engagement I’ve practiced. When content connects with someone at a truly personal level, and explicitly asks them to participate and share, wonderful things come to life. I would say that the Pepsi Refresh Project is among those campaigns that connect people, ideas, emotions all while furthering the sentiment and support towards the Pepsi brand and the ideas and people orbiting it.

Sharing the Spotlight

Among the most powerful forms of galvanization is that of recognition and reciprocity.

Movements can and should feature the very voices of those who can power the spreading of ideas. Providing them with a platform where they can voice their thoughts and views among vested audiences who can celebrate contribution is empowering and rewarding to brands and equally to participants. Social Media is powered by people and its future is dependent on how we not only consume content, but also invest in its significance and relevance.

In Nokia’s recent experiment in the UK, the company erected the world’s biggest signpost to visually demonstrate and promote GPS functionality. The sign featured the locations of those individuals who sent information directly to the sign, and in turn, the information was shared via the sign’s Twitter account. It’s personal and gratifying as Nokia places you and me at the center of the experience.

Sharing isn’t Caring, It’s Furthering an Idea

Ideas are worthy of sharing, when there is incentive to do so. The incentive isn’t always rooted in rewards however, motivation can simply stem from a reaction – a smile, an email, an emoticon, credit, etc. This sharing transpires in the social communities where relationships are entwined and as such, social objects are most effective when they integrate sharing mechanisms designed to simplify the process of dissemination. AddtoAny recently studied the networks where sharing ideas and content and corresponding dialogue tended to concentrate.

At 400 million strong, Facebook is by far the most active of all social networks, eclipsing email by more than 2x. And, even though email is second to Facebook at the moment, Twitter is in a draft position.

The point is that without the inclusion of one-click sharing capabilities, combined with planned syndication strategies, the reach of our content is restricted even before it’s introduced.

To that end, Zarrella also studied the effect of the word “video” on sharing within Facebook and Twitter. His observations were interesting indeed and actually make the case to consider focusing efforts on Facebook.

Stories that contained videos were shared more on Facebook than that of the average story. On Twitter, Tweets that included the word video were shared less than the average story. Zarrella believed that the Facebook platform is conducive for sharing as it enables the embedding of multimedia content where as Twitter requires an outbound link.

The Epitome

In a recent post in SearchEngineLand, Jordan Kasteler shared the seven types of sharing motives:

1. Self Expression

2. Affinity

3. Validation

4. Prurience

5. Status Achievement

6. Altruism

7. Self-serving interests

While there are many published formulas designed to help you make your social objects “go viral,” nothing is more important than…

1. Creating content that’s relevant

2. Identifying the tastemakers and influencers who will help us reach the right audiences

3. Involving them in the process before the campaign is officially introduced – seeding

4. Striking a chord with the person they’re trying to compel – making an emotional connection

5. Encouraging them to share it with their contacts

6. Rewarding them for doing so

7. Defining the action we wish viewers to take after the engagement

8. Providing them with a forum for self-expression

9. Recognizing all of those who helped us

10. Connecting everyone together for future engagement

The strategies, examples and supporting data are only minimized when we view them as ingredients to a recipe of viral marketing. Doing so underestimates the value of the roles people play in the spreading of ideas and practically dehumanizes overall experiences.

When we introduce social objects, our ability to create, connect, and define experiences around these information and idea catalysts defines whether we earn the attention we feel we deserve or we savor the collaboration we engendered through design.

Reflecting on the words of good friend Hugh MacLeod, the three keys to social media marketing, or marketing in general, are as simple as they are profound…

1. Figure out what your gift is, and give it to them on a regular basis.

2. Make sure it’s received as a real gift, not as an advertising message

3. Then figure out exactly what it is that your trail of breadcrumbs leads back to.

I don’t believe in viral marketing, but I do believe in the socialization of relevant ideas and information when connected to the right people, in the right places, with genuine and pre-defined intent.

Connect with Brian Solis on Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google Buzz, Facebook

Please consider reading my brand new book, Engage!

Get Putting the Public Back in Public Relations and The Conversation Prism:

Image Credit: Shutterstock

227 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Redefining Viral Marketing”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join Our Mailing List

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Stay Connected