How to create great content: The science behind Viral Marketing

How come some contents become viral while others don’t? What features should a content have to activate word of mouth? Unlike what one might think, viral marketing is run by specific rules that, if implemented correctly, could determine the success of our brand, products and services. Let’s find out how.

Viral Marketing is a strategy based on the ability to generate interest in a product or brand, creating word of mouth.

The term “viral”, with which we are now somewhat familiar and which may sound a little out of place right now, derives from the fact that the message and the information generated have the ability to spread very quickly among people, just like a virus.

Therefore, Viral Marketing takes advantage of the propensity of people to spontaneously share opinions, advice, news, videos and messages that they consider interesting. And due to their intrinsic ability to promote the rapid circulation of content, social networks have become the main promoters of this type of marketing.

Over the years there have been many viral posts. Just think of the famous #IceBucketChallenge, launched by the ALS Association to collect donations for research against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Those who participated in this challenge had to film themselves while pouring a bucket of ice water over their heads and name other people who had to do the same, nominating in turn other people.

Or Salt Bae, aka Nusret Gokce, a Turkish restaurateur who jumped to the headlines following a viral video that showed his peculiar way of cooking meat and adding salt to dishes. The gesture, which has become a meme, is still an integral part of Nusret’s personal branding.

Salt Bae’s fame was also fuelled by singers, footballers, actors and other famous people who not only frequent his restaurants but actively participate in the virality of his image.

However, what becomes viral not always has a fun or positive connotation. Sometimes the virality of some posts can generate negative reactions towards a brand.

Do you remember, for example, the viral video of that United Airlines passenger who was literally dragged away bleeding from the plane he was on because of overbooking?

Or Pepsi’s 2017 campaign starring Kendall Jenner who, during a protest, offers a can of Pepsi to the policemen. The advertising meant to promote “peace and unity” but, launched in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, it was judged out of place and insensitive to the real-world issues, where protesters often clash with police brutality. There was no shortage of tweets from people announcing the boycott of Pepsi products, parodies, memes and it is not surprising that even in 2020, the year in which the BLM movement filled the streets once again, this campaign has been brought up again.

Sometimes even fake news can become viral and end up becoming false myths. How many of us have heard, for example, that wearing seat belts is more dangerous than not putting them on? Well, there is no data to support this thesis, quite the contrary. Yet, it is a belief that many continue to have. Just as it has always been said that bulls get angry when they see red, when in reality bulls are not able to tell colours apart.

Why then certain news and certain posts go viral while others don’t?

Although it is not easy to have direct control over the virality of a post, contrary to what one might think, not everything that goes viral is dominated by chance.

How to create valuable content

There are some characteristics that all viral posts have in common – positive, negative, true or false they might be – and which can help us create more effective content and messages, able to remain etched in the memory.

As explained by Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and bestselling author of several books on marketing, these features can be summarized with the term SUCCESs, acronym of Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories.

Let’s see in detail each of these features.

Simple

In 2008 Apple launched its first advertisement for Macbook Air, presented as “The world’s thinnest notebook”.

To convey this message, Apple does not waste time in long explanations or technical details: it simply shows us an envelope, of which we all know more or less the dimensions, containing the Macbook.

Instead of bombarding us with information that we would have probably forgotten once the video was over, Apple chose to focus on one specific feature, conveyed through a simple and direct message. Although the ad does not tell us detailed information about thickness, inches and centimetres, the message is still immediately understandable and also easy to remember.

So, taking a leaf out of Apple’s book, let’s structure our message in a simple and direct way, focusing on the distinctive feature that makes our product or our brand different from the competition. Let’s ask ourselves: if the person listening to our message only remembered one thing about it, what would we want it to be?

Very often, comparing what we want to promote to something that people already know, for example an envelope, helps to convey our message even more effectively. Social media were the first to exploit the power of association, using word puns and evoking concepts well known by people: Facebook as a yearbook; Twitter which literally means “a brief flurry of irrelevant information” and “chirping of birds”; or Instagram, a neologism that combines the words “instant camera” and “telegram”, to convey the idea of a photo shared at the very moment it is taken.

The goal of a simple but effective message is to create a curiosity gap that pushes the public to want to know more.

Unexpected

To the concept of simplicity, we must associate another one: the unexpected.

Take for example this advertisement from the U.S. Department of Transportation to raise awareness on the use of seat belts.

The advertising shows an idyllic forest inhabited by two deer. The narrator tells us about their behaviours, just like a documentary. All these factors led us to expect a specific outcome, to think that the advertising was following a certain narrative model. However, unexpectedly, this model is disrupted by the sound of screeching tires and the image of the driver that tries to steer the car to the side so as to avoid hitting the deer that suddenly ran out of the woods. The advertising ends with a challenging question, playing precisely with the concept of the unexpected: “Didn’t see that coming? No one ever does”. And then proceeds driving its point across: “Buckle up. Always”.

Concrete

Very often business language tends to be impractical. How many times have we heard of the expression “strategic vision”, for example? But what exactly does this concept evoke in your mind? It is possible that you have a general idea of what a strategic vision is but you will hardly be able to have a clear picture associated with this expression.

When we communicate, we must forget about abstract concepts and instead focus on a communication capable of evoking concrete images.

So, what we have to ask ourselves in this case is: is the person who comes into contact with my message able to visualize it concretely?

For example, let’s look at the Macbook Air advertising: Apple does not talk about “revolutionary concepts” or “technological avant-garde”. Apple showed us a product in a simple, direct and concrete way, without speaking of technical characteristics. We are the ones who probably associated these concepts with Apple’s notebook after seeing the advertisement. If Apple had done the opposite, that is abstractly describing the product, we would hardly have had such a concrete picture of what they were talking about and we would have probably forgotten about this advertisement.

Credible

It may seem trivial to specify this, but another thing we must ask ourselves when communicating is: are we credible? Is our message credible?

Data and statistics can help us with this but numbers are often difficult to remember and fail to give the real measure of something.

Let’s go back once again to Apple’s advertising. How many of us would have remembered the exact size of Macbook Air if the advertisement would have specified it? Surely, we would have thought the advertising to be credible but it wouldn’t have given us the real perception of the size of the notebook.

To effectively communicate the credibility of its product and at the same time provide the public with a real perception of the size of Macbook Air, Apple played with the association with an envelope, an object that we all know and understand.

Another examples of this is Band-Aid’s ad.

The advertising shows in a tangible and credible way that the patch is waterproof, without having to spend many words on this feature.

Emotional Stories

The last feature of the SUCCESs framework to create effective messages must lead us to ask ourselves: how can we arouse real interest?

Our goal is not only to make people listen to us but also to make sure that those who do, are interested and passionate about what we are communicating.

To do this we must leverage one very important thing: emotions.

Take for example this advertisement by Google to promote and explain the Search tool.

When we think of Google Search the first thing that comes to mind is its usefulness, certainly not the emotions it arouses: we turn to Google when we need information, not because we expect to feel any kind of emotion.

However, digging deeper into why people turn to Google and the ultimate goal of their searches, one could find an emotional feature. And this is exactly what Google did: it told us a simple, unexpected, concrete, credible and emotional story, which engages the public, arousing interest and increasing the chance that the public will remember it.

The power of social influence

One of the most important factors to consider when creating content is social influence: many decisions we make are influenced by other people’s choices, even unconsciously.

Very often, however, we are the ones asking for advice and suggestions from our acquaintances, for example on a certain restaurant or on what to visit in that city. We read reviews and inform ourselves, in fact letting ourselves be influenced by the experiences of others.

This same concept applies to brands and products. How many times have we purchased a product because influenced by someone or because that particular brand conveys a certain social stance? In fact, sometimes our purchasing decisions are guided by the need to belong to a certain social group and at the same time distance ourselves from others.

Social influence is therefore a factor that can determine the success of our products and although it is not directly controllable, it is certainly good not only to take it into consideration at a strategic level but also to work upstream to better position our brand, carefully select our target and study the right message to communicate.

However, even a careful study of the positioning on the market can sometimes hide surprises: it may happen that a campaign designed for a certain segment ends up having greater appeal to another target that we hadn’t considered.

This is what happened with Honda Element, a car launched on the American market with the aim of attracting young men aged between 16 and 25. Element has become one of Honda’s best-selling cars but for a quite different target than the one imagined by the Marketing: the average age of Honda Element buyers was 41.

That of social influence is certainly not an easy issue to untangle nor is there a recipe that allows us to avoid mistakes along the way, however, it’s important to make a distinction: some products are more functional, while others are more symbolic. 

When it comes to functional products, like a pen, purchasing choices will probably be similar to anyone else’s.

If, on the other hand, we’re talking about highly symbolic products, such as cars, music, clothes, through which people communicate their identity, it is more likely that the purchasing choices are influenced by others: before buying, it will be assessed whether that product is liked and especially by whom.

Therefore, when we study the positioning of our product or brand, we have to take into account both the functional and symbolic values that we want to communicate.

The power of word of mouth

By the same logic of social influence, word of mouth also plays a fundamental role in determining the success of our product or brand: if on the one hand we could be wary of an advertisement, on the other we will almost certainly trust the judgment of a friend of ours or relative who recommends a certain product, or the mass of people who talk about that product.

For this reason, in addition to crafting good content, it is also important to find the right target so as to promote word of mouth both online and offline.

But how do we craft content that can create word of mouth and become viral?

Once again, a research by Professor Jonah Berger summarized in a framework six dimensions that push people to talk and share information. This framework is called STEPPS, which stands for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories.

Social Currency

Social Currency measures the extent to which people share the brand or information about the brand as part of their everyday social lives at work or at home.

What can push people to talk about a certain brand or product is, as we have seen, its functionality, affinity to their own interests or how special said product or brand makes them feel.

In addition to this, another very important factor is the uniqueness of the product.

So, our goal as marketers is precisely to find the noteworthy, interesting and distinctive trait of our brand and products, and show it (rather than explain it) to our audience: this will create word of mouth and increase our social currency.

Triggers

The first thing that comes to mind will also be the first thing on the tip of our tongue.

In marketing as in life, it is not just a matter of making someone like a product or a brand, but also of making people remember it.

If we want to create word of mouth and encourage people to share information about our product and service even when they are not using it, we have to create triggers that will bring it to mind.

Again, many brands rely on the association of a product with certain concepts and moments. If we think of the Corona beer brand we probably think of a beach, summer or at least a moment of total relax. And this is precisely the message conveyed through Corona’s advertising campaigns: their goal is to make us think of (and consequently purchase) a bottle of cold Corona, accompanied by a slice of lime whenever we are on a beach.

The same could be said with Ferrero’s snack Fiesta, which Italian advertising and slogan that can be translated into something like “I’m so hungry I can’t see straight anymore”, associated the snack with a well-deserved break.

So, let’s think about who we want to think about our product, brand or service, when we want this to happen, in what place and according to what order of ideas and how to tie our product to that particular trigger.

Emotion

The emotional factor is very important not only in the content creation phase but also in creating word of mouth. Raise your hand if, at least once, you stumbled upon a video with millions of views, shares and likes on the story of an abused dog saved from a life of hardship who finds happiness after being cared for and entrusted to a loving owner. And raise your hand if, at least once, after seeing the video you decided to share it with friends and relatives?

I think this is common occurrence and it shouldn’t be surprising: emotional involvement is one of the most powerful drives of viral content.

Clearly, not everything has an intrinsic emotional trait. But let’s think of Google Search’s commercial: the Search tool per se is not particularly moving, yet the emotions that they managed to convey has made the advertising, aired during the 2010 Super Bowl, widely appreciated and shared and to this day, users comment on how much the advertising made them cry. Google managed to make people emotional over the Search tool.

However, the spectrum of emotions is very wide and there are both positive and negative emotions. Which ones work best, then?

To answer this question, Professor Berger and his team reviewed six months of New York Times articles, measuring the different characteristics of the content to see if all the emotions increased sharing. They discovered that emotion generally tends to increase sharing but positive emotions tends to favour sharing more than negative emotions.

However, it’s more complicated than that. Berger examined some types of negative emotions, such as sadness, anger and anxiety, and the result was very interesting: while sadness diminishes the possibility that people shared the article, anger and anxiety have made people more likely to share. The reason is psychological activation: when angry or anxious, people tend to be more active, and feeling like screaming or breaking something (or, as in this case, sharing). Instead when we are sad, we tend to isolate ourselves and just do nothing.

So, the goal should not be to create content that features positive emotions, but to create content that can activate people and lead them to take action, i.e. sharing. And when it comes to activation, negative emotions can have the same power as positive emotions. As Berger himself said in one of his lessons: “Lots of emotions will stick but only certain emotions will get people to spread your message. And using those spreadable contagious emotions will get them to pass on your ideas.”

Public

When it comes to Public, another previously addressed behaviour makes its comeback: the tendency of people to observe and imitate other people.

And the more visible something is, the more easily it can be imitated. Our goal is therefore to make usually hidden things more visible.

Again, Apple teaches us a lesson: in a world populated by black headphones, Apple launched white headphones. This way, those who liked and acquired the brand stuck out from the crowd, facilitating at the same time the purchasing choice of those who noticed these new white headphones and wanted to imitate the people who wore them.

Practical Value

People tend to share content that has practical value, that is useful information that helps solve a problem or make other people feel better.

It is the basis of content marketing. Just look at us. EOS is a marketing and communication agency but instead of just talking about ourselves and our skills, we create (hopefully) useful content, both through the blog and our Instagram page, that people may be more likely to share – certainly more than purely promotional posts.

This technique works very well in both B2C and B2B, a notoriously difficult sector from a marketing point of view.

Stories

Everyone can say that they have, for example, a great customer service, but such a statement would hardly be shared among people through word of mouth.

However, if this statement is corroborated by a story that really shows how effective your customer service is, then it would make a big difference.

Here’s an example.

Chris Hurn’s wife and their two children were guests of the the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island hotel in Florida. Once they returned home, they realized that Joshie, Chris’ son’s favourite giraffe puppet, had been left at the hotel. To comfort his son, Mr. Hurn told him that Joshie simply extended the vacation by a few days. Hurn then called the hotel and explained to them the story he had told his son, asking if it was possible to confirm it with a photo of Joshie sunbathing by the pool. Two days later, a package from the hotel was delivered at the Hurn’s. The package contained Joshie, Ritz-Carlton merchandise and a folder that meticulously documented the giraffe’s extended vacation at the resort, complete with Joshie’s badge as member of the “Loss Prevention” team.

“Needless to say, my wife and I were completely wowed by the Ritz-Carlton Loss Prevention Team”, wrote Chris Hurn himself in an article for the HuffPost. “It goes without saying that the Ritz-Carlton can count on my family to be repeat customers”.

It’s also needless to underline how viral this story became.

So, let’s build a story that conveys the message we want to communicate but without sounding like a commercial.

How to find the right target and the right strategy

At this point we have built the right message that can create word of mouth. What to do next?

Professor Jonah Berger suggests two possible strategies: Sprinkler or Waterfall.

The Waterfall strategy entails the concentration of our marketing efforts on a single target (an audience segment, a specific place, etc.). With the Sprinkler strategy our resources and our efforts are spread out on different targets.

The Sprinkler strategy proves to be more effective to spread simple messages that do not require a big effort to convince people to share them.

The Waterfall strategy is instead more suitable to spread complex messages. This is the case of expensive or particularly innovative products, which require greater conviction and a “contagion” coming from several fronts.

Said that, while word of mouth can increase the focus on a certain product and understanding the science behind word of mouth can help us craft contagious content, where these contents end up depends on the network and links between people. It is therefore equally important, when we select our target and the strategy to be adopted, to understand how the networks and the links shape the spread of information and the mechanism of influence.

What about you? Do you believe in the science behind Viral Marketing or do you think that randomness determines the success of a certain content? Tell us in the comments 👇 and contact us to learn about our digital marketing services!

Published by

Barbara

After graduating in Languages at the Università degli Studi di Milano, my interest and curiosity towards the digital world led me to pursue a career in this field and to get a Specializing Master in Digital Marketing. Today, I am responsible for the definition and application of marketing and communication strategies for both EOS and the ipcm® magazines. In my free time I travel, I read a lot and I binge-watch TV series. A place to visit at least once in your life: Oman. Must read: Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini. What you should binge-watch next: Mindhunter.

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