Viral marketing: how to create contagious content
by Sasha Seddon
The word ‘viral’ has connotations of aggression and invasiveness. Drop it into the context of marketing, however, and it is instead a potent means of spreading a company’s message and engaging customers. Wilson (2000) has described viral marketing as “any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence”. Knight (1999) has made the far less poetic analogy of a “digitalised sneeze”.
Cultural evolution theories provide an interesting perspective. Social media posts can be viewed as memes, a term coined by the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins to refer to “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”. A successful meme is an element of culture which self-replicates; it propagates itself from one mind to another, out-competing other ideas and remaining intact (not subject to distortion by Chinese whispers!) Once seeded online, the message can propagate itself via re-tweets, post-sharing and email-forwarding. It can replicate itself exponentially, creating a kind of social contagion. The message is the virus and the mind is its host. However, while planting a seed can lead to the growth of something great, it can just as easily be fruitless; the message can falter and fail – a social media non-starter.
Social media platforms such as Twitter are ideal environments for this; a single tweet can be re-tweeted quickly, can reach a huge number of people simultaneously and, as it is basically copy-and-pasted, the original message stays the same.
Certain memes are more effective than others. What kind of content thrives in the world of online marketing? There are many different factors to consider.
Milkman and Berger (2012) examined all the articles published by the New York Times over a three month period, and identified the emotional content of successful posts (ie. the articles most likely to be shared via email). They found that the most popular content does at least one of the following:
elicits a strong emotional reaction
is practically useful
is positive in nature
High-energy emotions such as anger, happiness and awe are more likely to be shared than low-energy ones, such as sadness.
For The Flash Pack, a company specialising in organising small group and bespoke travel, a rather interesting image was the cornerstone of their success – with relevance, humour and positive emotions all playing their part. Their ‘First ever selfie with Jesus’ viral campaign featured travel blogger and photographer Lee Thompson climbing inside Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue and then taking a picture at the top. The photos were posted on Instagram three weeks later, to coincide with the beginning of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The post went viral during the World Cup and 1.4 million hits were received by the company’s website in just four days. Thompson describes this as a “priceless marketing campaign”, as it cost nothing to do but resulted in a huge success. There were about one million hits on their website in six days, the photo has been shared around 50 million times on Facebook and Twitter, and the video received 900,000 hits on Youtube.
Burger King struck gold when they launched their ‘Subservient Chicken’ campaign, which included a website appearing as an interactive webcam. The site enabled people to ‘control’ a man in a chicken costume, using pre-recorded footage of him carrying out actions such as push-ups, moonwalking and laying eggs. It embodied the idea that customers of Burger King can have their chicken any way they like it – “Have it your way” – and to promote the new TenderCrisp sandwich. Within a week, the site received 20 million hits and a month after the debut of their new product, the fast food franchise reported that sales had steadily increased by around 9% each week. Although a causal link between the marketing and sales cannot be established, it is likely that the campaign improved the brand’s identity, associating them with humour and fun, and increased awareness for the new product.
Another, more common example of brand-consumer interactivity is the use of quizzes. These are popular when it comes to shared posts. Many brands use these to engage customers and update them about new products; for example, Food52 regularly posts quizzes such as ‘Which cake are you?’ and ‘Find out your spirit sandwich’. Just three days after posting their cake quiz on Twitter, it had been viewed over 20,000 times, leading to a great deal of brand exposure and customer engagement.
People like posts which identify themselves and let others know what they are like. If it makes them look good, then it appeals to the narcissistic side of sharers, as does the sharing of content which makes a person seem intelligent, thoughtful or successful.
Posting images is another way to appeal to customers and increase the number of shares. BuzzSumo’s analysis of 100 million articles identified many factors associated with more success – that is, the more times the articles were shared online. They found that having at least one image in a post results in more shares for both Twitter and Facebook content.
The power of numbers, words and days
BuzzSumo also found that lists are commonly shared posts, with those containing the number 10 to be the most popular, and those containing the number 23 to be the second most popular.
Articles including the word ‘actually’ in their titles are shared more than similar articles without this word – for example, ‘Which career should you actually have?’ is more successful than ‘Which career should you have?’ Quotes are also commonly re-tweeted, more so than questions; this is also thought to appeal to the egocentricism of sharers – posting quotes can make people seem knowledgeable, profound and thoughtful. Visuals may be important but, on Twitter, text is re-tweeted more often than images or videos; for Twitter users, at least, it seems that a picture is not worth a thousand words.
The best day to publish social media content appears to be a Tuesday. Facebook and Twitter show the most activity during the daytime, while Pinterest is more popular in the evening.
An excellent case study of how incentives can lead to increased sharing is the Bird’s Eye pay-by-picture restaurant. The company launched a pop-up restaurant in which diners could try their new chicken and fish products and then settle the bill by uploading a picture of their meal to Instagram. It was highly successful for exposing people to the products on offer, directly through the incentives and sharing, and indirectly through the media attention given to the campaign.
Blendtec’s ‘Will it blend?’ videos are a perfect example of how to draw attention to a product and showcase its benefits, while also adding in some humour. The series showed scientists testing how different household items can be blended, exhibiting the effectiveness, strength and durability of the product.
Berger and Milkman also found that ‘practical utility’ was a more pertinent factor than ‘interest’ concerning sharing articles.
These are just a few things to consider. The German writer and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed, ideas are “like chessmen moved forward; they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game”.
Let’s hope these tips can help you start a winning game.