Ironically, when first formulating meme theory in The Selfish Gene in 1976, Richard Dawkins could scarcely be aware of just how far his idea would spread and influence the way we view communication. His language has become indispensable in the discussion of the way ideas are spread in the digital age. Viral marketing is, itself, a rather virulent concept and there are few people operating in digital marketing who haven’t been bitten by the bug. But creating contagious content isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.
“There’s producing remarkable content and then there’s going viral,” comments Kieran Flanagan, marketing director of Europe, Middle East and Africa at marketing software producer Hubspot. “I think those two things are quite different.” Starting with the concept of virality and working backward is a little like setting your heart on becoming a billionaire and then trying to slot in any money-maker that will get you there. “People who start with the goal of going viral will more than likely fail because it’s not really a great goal,” he says.
Any successful viral campaign will have started with some solid content at its core. How ‘contagious’ a piece of content is will ultimately depend on how well it captures the imagination of your intended market. “It’s about identifying the kind of content that will resonate with your target audience,” explains David Waterhouse, global head of content and PR at producer of video engagement and social analytic tools Unruly Media. Finding ways to produce tailored content for an intended demographic inevitably means that they will be more inclined to share it. “Recent scientific and academic research has found that the number of shares a video attracts, whether it is user-generated or commercial, is linked to the strength of emotion it elicits from its viewers,” he continues. “The stronger the emotion, the more likely it is going to be shared.”
Obviously, then, a marketing strategy of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks isn’t going to be helpful; when running content-driven campaigns, enterprises need to be able to get inside their audiences’ heads. “Everything, in terms of content, starts with a pretty clear and well thought out persona,” says Flanagan. “You figure out over time what they’re trying to buy and what content they engage with.”
By taking a granular approach to your marketing data, it becomes easier to identify the needs and interests of various demographics. “One thing I think is very important when you’re trying to produce all this remarkable content for your personas is to do something called topic analysis,” Flanagan comments. Aggregating analytics under each topic and assessing the performance of a variety of subjects allows a business to see what works and answer some fundamental questions. Flanagan gives some examples: “Is it bringing people into the site in terms of new visits? Is it creating engagement in terms of people commenting on it, in terms of people sharing it?”
But subject isn’t the only measure of success. “Getting the right distribution is also key,” comments Waterhouse. In Unruly’s domain, that of social video advertising, paid distribution can facilitate targeted content placed in the right place: contextually relevant blogs, websites and social networks. The fact that the content is actually relevant for the users of these outlets increases the chances that users will respond by passing content on to others. “The right content can find its target audience in environments where viewers are more engaged,” he continues. “For example, a campaign for a new baby food can reach its target audience through food blogs and via ‘mummy bloggers’, with the audience sharing the video among their peers and social networks.”
Assuming they’ve got these first two factors right – subject and setting – there’s still one all-important element that enterprises need to take into consideration: success.
Working with the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), Unruly has formulated its ‘four As’ measurement for the efficacy of a social campaign. The first is ‘awareness’, which measures the reach achieved within the target audience. ‘Action’ relates to how well the campaign motivates brand interaction, whether that be generating clickthroughs or increasing purchases. ‘Attention’ concentrates on the amount of time users are spending engaging with the content. Finally ‘advocacy & appreciation’ measures how a campaign motivates the audience to become brand champions, wherein they share, like and comment on content.
And it is perhaps this last factor, with regard to the subject of virality, that merits most attention. As in any case of brand advocacy, evangelists for your content don’t just appear out of thin air; they’re actively created. “One of the best ways companies can start to get traction in the market is if they have lots and lots of happy customers who are talking about their products and good experiences,” says Flanagan. “Turn your customers into people who are going to spread that word of mouth.”
Building these sorts of resources doesn’t happen overnight and that’s why it’s a little unrealistic for a new brand to expect to unleash a pandemic if the people exposed to it are relatively few and far between. “If you’re a small brand starting out and you’re trying to get as much push behind your campaign as possible, I think it takes time,” Flanagan comments. But by focusing on creating high-quality, relevant content both on your site and in the community, gradually increasing reach and virality are within your grasp. He concludes: “I think your ability to go viral is going to increase the more you build up your readership and you really do that by being consistent with the quality of content you put out.”