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The Hierarchy of Contagiousness

Guest post by Dan Zarrella, author of Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness

The key to applying science to marketing is being prescriptive. Calculating and analyzing data that is interesting is fun, but information becomes useful when it tells you how to achieve a specific goal. Throughout my career, one of the goals I’ve focused on is the engineering contagious ideas. I’ve worked for years, using science and data to understand how to craft content that spreads like wildfire.

Humans have been spreading ideas for thousands of years, telling each other where to find the best hunting ground, what dish detergent to use and what god to worship. The web provides unprecedented access to these conversations, allowing researchers to analyze millions of ideas to reverse engineer what it is about them that makes them spread.

Generally, when you ask someone why certain ideas go viral, the best answer you’ll get is “because they’re good.” That video I sent you last week was so funny, I had to share it. Any more than a few moments of thought reveals this to be entirely untrue. There are plenty of good ideas that go nowhere and lots of bad ideas that spread like crazy. Clearly there are some other factors that determine how contagious ideas are. And it is exactly those factors I’ve devoted my work to studying.

If you’ve been to enough social media conferences, or read enough books or blogs about modern marketing, you’ve undoubtedly heard a ton of what I call unicorns-and-rainbows advice. Feel-good stuff like “engage in the conversation,” “hug your followers,” and “have a personality.” It’s hard to disagree with this kind of stuff, because I’m not going to get on stage and tell you to punch your customers in the face, but it’s generally not based on anything more substantial than what sounds right, or makes the listener feel good.

Unicorns-and-rainbows advice is kind of like the snake oil and magical cures peddled before the rise of real, scientific health care. No real doctor would treat his patients with a certain procedure simply because it “sounded right.” It’s time for social media marketing to move beyond the dark ages and embrace the deluge of data now available to us.

One of the biggest problems with the superstitious approach to social media is that success is considered luck. Under the hegemony of unicorns-and-rainbows it’s black magic to make a piece of content “go viral.” The only things those myth-based marketers use to guide their efforts is gut feelings and anecdotal (and often misleading) “experience.”

I for one, don’t like to base business decisions on luck or gut feeling. I prefer to use science and data to create reproducible and reliable results. To accomplish this, I crafted a model for understanding how ideas spread and I’ve studied how marketers can optimize for success at each step of the process. I call this model Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness. It’s what my latest book is all about.

While the name is reminiscent of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the actual model draws on two other concepts: AIDA and OODA. AIDA is a sales methodology that describes the steps in the selling (or buying process): awareness, interest, decision, and action. Each of those steps must occur if someone is going to buy something. OODA comes from military strategy and describes the decision making process in a confrontation: observe, orient, decide, and act.

My framework describes the 3 steps that must happen if someone is going to spread your idea for you:

1. The person must be exposed to your idea. They have to be following you on Twitter, subscribed to your email list or “like” your page on Facebook.

2. They must actually become aware of your idea. I follow 8,000 people on Twitter, so I don’t see every tweet. Your target must actually read your Tweet, open your email or see your wall post in their feed.

3. Something in that content has to actually motivate them to spread your idea. Once I’ve read your tweet, it has to make me want to retweet it. Your email has to make me want to forward it.

At each step of this process, marketers can optimize for success. My book goes into detail about each of these steps and provides data on how to do the best, but here’s a run down:

1. To increase the number of people potentially exposed to your ideas, you must increase your reach. Get more followers, email subscribers or Facebook likes.

2. You have to learn to be heard over the noise of social media. By being more attention grabbing or using contra-competitive timing.

3. Your content must include motivation-raising features. Combined relevance, calls-to-action and us vs them are examples of contagious “hooks.”

For more social media science like this, pickup Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness on Amazon.

12 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Hierarchy of Contagiousness”

  1. Beautiful! I absolutely love the poking at “unicorns”, etc.

  2. Sheena Linkedin says:

    Cool stuff, bringing fundamentals back to the drawing board. Many IMC people forget about these models.

  3. thank you very much for such a great post!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Sometimes going back to the theory can prove to be a beneficial way chewing over practical ideas. Thanks for this post.

  5. Eric Woning says:

    this sounds right… but I’d love to get statistical evidence to back it up as much as I’d like that from the tree-hugging / rainbow-lovin’ / unicorn worshipping team

  6. very good post! need to say you did a great job and i really appreciate it!

  7. So this guy has ran viral campaigns???? just asking

  8. Thank you very much for your great post! I just downloaded the Kindle Version of your book yesterday and cannot wait to devour it! Measurement is much better than “feel good” and “one click become my fan”! Thank you for a “measurable” contribution to the new uncharted science of social media metrics!!

  9. My thoughts exactly, I created my fanpage and its been viral ever since I used call-to-action kind of images to some sites like Pinterest, Shopcastr, Piccsy and etc.. Now i’m busier than ever before but not that busy to be able to ignore your post. Great post as always. 

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