What Makes Content Go Viral? Academic Research shows….

Ideas are like riders and they need a vehicle (medium) to travel to get to us.

The idea can be remarkable, but if you can’t connect it to a medium for it to travel, nothing happens.

That’s why content is king.

And that’s why viral content is divine. It’s rare, it’s magical, and it is not well understood.

Photo Courtesy of https://seanpercival.com

Viral content is identical to the viruses that exist in the natural world.

In medical school, I learned about viruses and how they spread from host to host.

For that to happen, they need a sneeze, handshake, or some other form of transmission for that virus to get to the next person and the next.

Courtesy of Linda Bruslind of Oregon State

Ideas are no different.

When it comes to ideas, you have to ask two simple questions:

A. Is the content of your idea good enough to hold up strategically?

B. What medium is it being connected to so it can travel?

The first question is difficult to answer.

You can whiteboard all day how it can hold up strategically, but anyone who understands a little psychology knows that confirmation bias is alive and well.

That said, a good place to start is understanding the psychology of sharing.

Drs. Katherine Milkman and Jonah Berger showed in their study that we share content for five main reasons:

  • To bring valuable and entertaining content to others
  • To define ourselves to others
  • To grow and nurture existing relationships
  • To feel better about ourselves
  • To get the word out about something we believe in

Their findings also suggest that social transmission is about more than just value exchange or self-presentation (see also Berger and Schwartz 2011).

Staying with the idea that people share to entertain others, surprising and interesting content is highly viral.

The mistake we make as marketers is the obsession with the utility of our product and trying to make surprising and interesting content around that. Companies often obsess over why the market hasn’t embraced their product which in all measures beats the competition. Just look at how smart phone companies compete.

The only people who get emotionally charged up about the features and benefits of your product is your company and maybe your competition.

The problem isn’t the utility of the product or durability. It’s the story and how that story fits the worldview of the consumer.

The consumer is buying the justification, the story of what the product is.

That’s why the process of buying (the package, whom they buy from, social proof, the circumstances under which it was made etc) is important. Of course, once they buy the product, features and benefits are important. However, one could argue that consumers are even more interested in how they will be treated by a company if the features and benefits don’t measure up.

Berger and Milkman’s study showed that while marketers often produce content that paints their product in a positive light, the results suggest that content will be more likely to be shared if it evokes high-arousal emotions.

The story is what pleases the consumer, not facts. Stories framed around worldviews.

The great copy produced in the Mad Men era showed us all that great marketing does not involve creating desire. Rather, it’s about unearthing existing emotions and channeling them towards your product or service.

If you show the data that says your product’s outcomes are the best, they won’t believe you. If you claim to have the best prices, they’ll ignore you.

Subtly matters and to influence someone a marketer has to tell a compelling story to get the consumer to listen and pay attention.

Once they pay attention, there’s your chance to show that the data, reports, and reviews make you the only choice for their need.

Marketers don’t get the luxury to sit down and make up a story expecting the consumer to believe it merely because we want them to.

Great marketing gets a person to ask themselves the right question and then makes their product fit the worldview of that person.

What story have you been telling yourself and what is the story your customer wants you to tell?

Spending time answering this can only bring you closer to customers and ultimately the truth. Now that’s a story worth spreading.