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Why Marketing Doesn’t Go Viral

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Viral marketing: What more could you ask for? You’ve seen it happen with big companies and small, when an ad or a video or a post suddenly shows up everywhere. It’s practical ubiquity, baby, and it can make your cash register go ka-ching.

March 18, 2014

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But despite the hype, chances are overwhelmingly good that most of your material, even if it picks up a lot of interest, doesn’t hit the big time. But why? You’re good to your parents, work hard, and floss after meals.

The problem you face is that, in raw numbers, Only a very small percentage of marketing goes viral. There are three reasons why, according to Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of the forthcoming book, The Humor Code, which is about what makes things funny. The good news is that there are a few things you can do to radically improve the odds once you understand the problems.

Fix your definition of ‘viral.’

Viral marketing should mean users interact and the material is contagious. “You [would] get this exponential effect and eventually you reach a million people,” McGraw says. “Very rarely is anything passed on from individual to individual and eventually reaches millions of people. The only thing that gets passed on are viruses, either human or computer.”

As a large scale study by researchers at Yahoo found, “adoptions resulting from chains of referrals are extremely rare.” Furthermore, even when referrals worked, they were generally within one degree of “a few prominent individuals.” So the working definition of viral marketing should be that the entrepreneur finds a way to drive a lot of views through a smaller number of contacts.

Provocative isn’t enough.

What do you pass along? Maybe something funny, touching, shocking–in a word, provocative. That’s fine, and it might get you or a friend to look at something, but that’s not enough. You need to get the attention of the individuals or organizations that can effectively spread your message. That changes the way you create and structure the content.

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Viral doesn’t necessarily mean free.

In theory, viral marketing could certainly cost little or no money, but, oh, if only that were generally true. Some of the most effective viral marketing has a lot of money behind it in ways you may not realize. There may be entire television advertising campaigns designed to advance the reception of a viral campaign.

Now, even though I’ve heard of people who claim they can make content go viral, no one can really guarantee that. Even the sites most successful at pushing popular content have hits and misses. However, there are steps you can take to improve your chances.

  • It must be dually interesting. Of course, whatever you’re doing has to grab a general audience. But it also has to grab the media. You’ll succeed when major sites see what you’ve done as something worth covering. There has to be enough material that gives them something to write about, even if it’s brief. That puts a “priority on newness, on uniqueness,” McGraw says.
  • Keep it short. Longer videos, articles, slide shows, and what have you may be interesting, but sites are less likely to write about them. They know the attention span of their audiences is short and bloggers and reporters often like to get a quick impression of the material. To hit the broadcast big time, short is a necessity.
  • Keep a balance between edge and audience. Controversy can drive attention, as you might imagine. But don’t go too far. Remember, you’re trying to reach people through the media, so avoid a NSFW label.
  • Consider spending money. Whether you want a celebrity to tweet about your campaign or you want to land on the homepage of YouTube, it’s probably going to cost you. But think bigger, as well. “Time, money, creativity are just resources,” McGraw says. “How much resources are you willing to dedicate to it, and what’s your return on investment? The nice thing about money is you have at least a vague sense of the return on investment.”

Successful viral marketing isn’t accidental so much as it’s smart PR. So plan accordingly and avoid the hit-or-mostly-miss approach. Oh, and McGraw suggests reading two books to better understand the phenomenon: Made to Stick, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, and Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger.

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