Four tips on how to rethink the concept of going viral

“Going viral” is the elixir of content marketing, the magic bullet, the one thing we’re all hoping will happen to our carefully crafted content. You only have to look at the long line of viral successes from Scottish singer Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition in 2009, to PSY’s Gangnam Style music video in 2012, to the blender brand Blendtec’s ‘Will it blend’ spoof YouTube videos to know that a piece of content that goes viral can catapult an unknown brand or person into an over-night worldwide phenomena.

But a recent report penned by marketing professor Jonah Berger, from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and in conjunction with global marketing agency DigitasLBi, has turned the idea of needing to go viral on its head. He has recently challenged the notion that a brand’s content “going viral” actually equates to more sales. He said: “There has been a lot of excitement over the years [about content going viral], but when brands look at the link between friends or followers and their sales, nothing is changing. Just because something is viewed a million times doesn’t mean it has value.”

Berger, author of the recent New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On, advocates that brands should concentrate their efforts in increasing their person-to-person shares. He said that rather than brands and agencies obsessing over the number of followers, likes and shares from one piece of content they should focus their efforts on measuring the cumulative effect of a social media marketing campaign instead. He said: “We need to shift the discussion to a metric more focused on the things that will create loyalty on the individual level.”

In a recent piece on his personal blog entitled Viral 2:0 he said: “There’s so much hype around viral that people have lost sight of some of the basics. The important ideas that got people excited about viral videos in the first place. It’s time for a new way of thinking about Viral.” He offered four tips on how to rethink the concept of going viral. Here we’ve summarised what he suggested:

1 Focus on face-to-face marketing techniques

Only 7% of word of mouth happens online. The rest happens around the dinner table, at the water-cooler or while watching sports according to research conducted by Berger for his book. We may all be glued to our virtual world on our smart-devices but we still place a greater value on word of mouth recommendations than our online equivalents. Brands should not ignore this fact – yes social channels give reach and the ability to connect with a wider audience but they don’t replace the off-line world, yet.

2 It’s not all about increasing numbers

CEOs love numbers, especially ones that increase with regularity. They think it means, we’re more popular or we’re going to sell more. But what Berger says is, while 10 million views on a YouTube video is great, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to double sales. Instead brands should focus on increasing engagement with their audience – getting more people to talk and share.

3 Shares are more important than views

While views will boost an ego, shares will boost engagement which will lead to more sales. Rather than be swayed by the number of times a piece of content has been read or viewed or liked (as these can easily be bought), brands should focus on the number of times their content has been shared. He says: “contagious content generates engagement.” The metric brands should concentrate on is dividing the number of shares by the number of views as this will give a more accurate measure of how viral content is.

4 Viral content that doesn’t support business objectives is useless

The viral hit that Evian water created in 2009 was an expensive lesson to learn. Its Roller Babies video, that featured babies performing a series of amazing roller-skate aerobatics, attracted more than 55 million views. But when the brand measured the impact the ad had on sales the marketing team were shocked. Rather than seeing an increase in sales, they’d actually dropped by 25% in the US alone. While viewers loved their mini movie they didn’t connect it to the brand. Berger says the lessons brands should learn is that they must not lose sight of their business needs when creating content. Viral content should be valuable, relevant and help the customer connect to the brand.

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