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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”

  1. WebStudio13 says:

    Thanks, good read. I like the fact that the article recognizes that humans are the driving force behind all materials that eventually go viral.

  2. John McTigue says:

    What do you think about generating controversial content just for the sake of going viral. To me it's just a ploy, but one that seemingly everyone uses. I actually get bored seeing so many posts about the latest hot topics, especially the ones about politics or celebrities.

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

    It's true: We can do a lot to position our content for viral distribution–a heck of a lot, as you outline in this excellent post.

    But it's also true: Our best laid plans are often subject to failure in this regard, because so much of this is beyond our control. We might call this luck.

    And so: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” seems pretty apt in thinking about “making” content viral.

  4. semmer says:

    What a great article! As a marketer, it really hit home just how important strategy is for any social media campaign. Just throwing something out there without intent, a call to action, and a reason for sharing will not lead to furthering the idea . As human beings we need to feel connected in some way to both ideas and each other. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Lupin says:

    Hi! Great Post! Cool tips, also. I think a viral is some times not born to be a viral, it just happens. I love when that happens: when links are being send, comments are being made, twitter is on fire and something just pops out without any intention. Nowadays there are a lot of 'viral contents' that never get virilized, and I think that's 'cause people is starting to realized when that's the main goal of that content, and they don't want to follow that goal or help to get there, probably because they don't really like or aprove the content. Don't you think?
    There will be more and more methods to get viral traying just to persude people to retweet things.

  6. Lindy Dreyer says:

    Great post. You're always so thorough, Brian! From my POV, not only is there no such thing as viral marketing, but also when something does go viral, it ceases to be marketing. It becomes less about connecting potential customers with a product or brand and more about whatever made it compelling enough to share–the joke, or the drama, or the utility.

    Anyway, the social object is a much more useful concept, so thanks for discussing it further here.

  7. Very well said! My own research shows that a viral process is in large part driven by network structure (i.e., who's connected to whom, how many connections, etc.). From this perspective, it is very true that information finds you, through network connections.

  8. mbogosi says:

    Intriguing arguments made and extremely valuable information. Thank you for providing us with such thoughtful insights Brian.

    My personal addition would be to focus on what it is exactly all the consumers of your of your media have in common. In part, it seems like many marketers confuse a social graph because only a portion of the message relates to their curiosity. I think clarity is key along with relevance. Short and sweet!

  9. tallulah says:

    This is hands down the most helpful and comprehensive response I've read to the question “How do we make it go viral?” Thanks for giving all of us a post to reference. The word “viral” invokes so much excitement sometimes, and your guide above provides a sobering reminder to “sit down and think” rather than “panic and and spam”.

  10. This is excellent. Saying you’re going to create a viral campaign is like saying you’re going to produce a hit movie. The audience will determine whether it’s a hit—not you.

  11. markwilliamschaefer says:

    Great post, but you forgot cats. Cats are a pre-requisite to any viral activity. Actually they are a purr-requisite.

  12. acfou says:

    viral videos (videos that go viral, with no paid support) are as rare as the Siberian lynx.

    viral videos where the brand being advertised is known or remembered is rarer still.

    viral videos that drive sales and ROI are …

  13. amandamagee says:

    It's very easy to get so caught up in the directive you forget the objective. “Information finds us,” is true, our job as marketers (and members of society for that matter) is to take care to make sure that it is understood and, with a little forethought, embraced. Before the internet, before radio and so many other befores, success has not come from overpowering or forcing, it has come from persuasion, inclusion and participation. Maybe if we stop using the superloaded yet underwhelming “viral” and think “infectious” or “contagious,” which for me suggests more of reciprocity of experience— You shared something that I loved and for that reason I must share it. This makes us think of the audience ahead of the message.

  14. John Paul says:

    Great article…seems to me that the most Viral things on the web, always seem to be either a traggic story or vid or funny/silly vids.

    Do you think this is because most people are online for entertainment?

    Example.. I watched a Mr Bean “pool” vid other day on Youtube,, had been seen over 3million times..which to me is crazy lol it's funny, but is it really 3mill funny?

  15. Mr. Holloway says:

    Very useful article! Thanks for taking the time to post it. Now if I could only apply that, to this…

  16. It's nice to see you didn't leave out “utility”. People connect “viral” with quick hitting content with a short lifespan similar to most TV ad campaigns(ie. Youtube video contests, friend connection based FB apps). The beauty of the the web, especially the social web is that social objects can be created to provide solutions to many people. The positive network effect we saw with Twitter is a great example…you gotta say the quick climb of Twitter was human powered viral growth.

  17. K.N.M. says:

    “Content, no matter how brilliant, creative, abstract, or controversial, is not inherently viral.” I completely agree. Information becomes viral through chance and its potential cannot be plotted and planned as certain marketers are being instructed to do. As you said, there are many reasons and motives why people share information. Even though these reasons can be narrowed down, no one can successfully market to such a wide range.
    On a side note:
    “Viral” originates from the word “virus.” Catching a virus is as unpredictable as knowing whether or not a video or link will become a virtual phenomenon. Even with the help of social networking sites and strategic placement of information on the internet, it seems a bit risky if not impossible to create a successful marketing venture out of such an unpredictable concept.

  18. Hi Brian, great post and a great subject! This is something I've been thinking about a lot recently.

    I came to the conclusion that there were two 'value dimensions' to the 'viral' effect 1) what value does the content deliver directly to people? and 2) what value does it deliver indirectly, i.e. by telling someone else about it?

    With regards to the first dimension we identified 5 types; Information, Entertainment, Personal, Monetary and Utility – I've written a post if you're interested in reading it, it'd be awesome to get your feedback –

  19. jonnylucas says:

    Going viral is a matter of being relevant and that may involve not just the factor of producing good content but having the right formula to engage people (audience) + social objects. Educate your audience on how they can spread the word for you. Join the conversations about social media and marketing here

  20. Antonia says:

    This post is excellent. I do agree with you saying that such a thing as viral marketing doesn't exist since content doesn't become viral without people. However, I do wonder what other expression would describe this phenomenon better. I think that every plan fails without a concept, strategy and the concept of how to use the information at hand. The word WOM also leaves room for interpretation.
    Generally I believe that it hugely depends on the channels used as well as the person who originally spreads the word. I also think it depends on how well that person is connected. Maybe someone will come up with a more fitting name in the future. What do you think?

  21. Marcio_Saito says:

    Brian, totally right.

    As McLuhan said: “The medium is the message”. It is is not the content that makes a message viral, it is the medium.

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