Traits of Viral Marketing

The Holy Grail of internet and social media marketing is viral content (aka viral marketing). The term, of course, refers to some bit of content–be it text, video, audio, a download or some variation of all four–which is shared so frequently across the internet its spread can be compared to a biological contagion. Viral content is often random or accidental: many hapless YouTube users have uploaded videos of themselves only to become the laughingstock of the internet, while content created in corporate boardrooms to be viral rarely lives up to its design. This has not stopped internet marketers from searching for a way to crack the code of viral content. The payoff in brand recognition would be so great for most companies, they just can’t resist trying. What advertiser’s have found, however, is that most viral content has three characteristics in common.

It Must Be Honest

The reason most advertisement content falls flat before going viral is that the internet abhors a fraud. A simple video created with no agenda by a young married couple about their pregnancy collects over 8 million views, dozens of copycats and draws the attention of celebrities like Jessica Alba without breaking a sweat. Meanwhile the entire channel’s worth of videos (208) from Planned Parenthood eeks out a meager 3.2 million views. A single, honest example of beauty celebrating the wonder of child birth in a sweet, artistic and fun-loving manner outperforms an entire library of agenda-filled instructional content. Honesty will always out-perform media with an agenda. For marketers, embracing that agenda wholeheartedly results in better advertising because it is transparent…and often hilarious.

It Must Be Polarizing

There are also a wide variety of unfunny videos, articles and pictures that have achieved viral status online. Most of them have been extremely polarizing, which makes it major link bait. Polarizing content gets shared half of the time by people who are thrilled by what they are watching, and the other half of the time by people who are horrified. An excellent example of this is the father who shot several bullet holes in his daughter’s laptop. The video has over 32 million views to date and over 34,000 “dislikes” on compared to the 352,000+ “likes”. It appears that the man who made the video has made a few enemies, but he has made more friends along the way and both camps are sharing his video like crazy in the hopes of recruiting people to their point of view. Unfortunately for most American companies hoping to score big in social media marketing, polarizing messages are not really an option given the potential for legal recourse.

It Must Touch Our Vanity

42Function speculates that viral content makes internet users feel strongly in a few specific ways, and thus they are motivated to share. However, most internet users do not share because they have been moved, but because they hope their friends will be moved. Ultimately, they share things they hope will impress others, as if there might be some sort of finder’s fee in the social economy. Most people share things they find on the internet because they want their friends to think more highly of them. Marketing that preys on this desire, think Kony 2012, is “Most Likely To Succeed” in the advertising yearbook.

Research and blind speculation into what makes content spread throughout cyberspace will likely continue until there is no internet, but a few things are clear: if content is honest, polarizing, and appeals to our vanity, then it shares three characteristics with some of the most virulent strains of marketing on the Web.

Byline: Alyse is a marketing and tech-enthusiast who spends her time exploring the next generation of technology. When she is not learning the latest tricks for her technology trade, you can find her contributing to ATTSavings.