It seems everyone is after the elusive silver bullet when designing effective marketing campaigns – the formula that will guarantee a viral hit. While these kinds of successes are rare (relative to their non-viral counterparts), there are scientifically backed ways to boost your chances of success and increase return on investment.
One principle of viral marketing is the idea that messages are spread as a function of social contagion. For online marketing, social contagion refers to the process by which ideas, attitudes, or behaviour patterns spread throughout a group, either by imitation (viral trends such as the hipster beard) or conformity (being pressured to doing the same thing as peers, such as the ice bucket challenge). As powerful as this phenomenon may be, research has also shown that it is not always the reason behind why campaigns go viral. This means that if marketers are to succeed in their efforts, they have to look to other techniques to increase their impact.
One technique was discovered in a study exploring the most effective seeding strategies for viral marketing. The German research, which consists of a framework for findings from four other studies, outlined four key factors crucial for success.
First, it stated that you have to understand the behavioural characteristics of your recipients (such as their likelihood to engage with you directly), and what incentives they may have for sharing your message (their personal motivations for engaging with you).
Second, you need to craft content that is memorable by ensuring that it is attractive to your intended audience. This means tailoring your message in order to enhance its desirability to a particular set of people, which can require changing its tone, the language and slang you use, the cultural references you may include, and so on.
Third, you have to understand and leverage the underlying social structure of the group you are targeting. It is not enough to simply look at a person’s Twitter account and target them because they have a following of 10,000 people. Rather, you have to look under the hood and examine the hidden structure in order to assess the actual pattern of connection (and whether it’s worth targeting them). Key questions to consider are: which, of all these connections, are active and useful? Are there any key people who act as nodes or amplifiers for their social groups? How can we target them?
Finally, you have to decide who to target first in order to launch your campaign, so that you can select the appropriate seeding strategy to use (these are too numerous to list here).
Consider the first factor, incentives. Although we like to think of ourselves as being in conscious control of our lives, when it comes to making a decision, studies have found that the actions we take stem from deeper, often subconscious, emotional responses. This means that if you want to elicit an action from your audience, you have to find a way to trigger them at a deeper, more emotional level.
However, there is a catch: not all emotions are created equal. In an analysis conducted on The New York Times’ most emailed articles list, researchers found that people were much more likely to share content that evoked ‘high arousal’ emotions, regardless of whether they were positive (awe) or negative (anxiety or anger). On the other hand, content that elicited less arousing or ‘deactivating’ emotions (sadness) resulted in fewer social shares and lower overall impact.
This may sound quite reasonable, but what is really interesting is that these results held true even when the content was placed prominently, and contained useful, interesting and surprising information – factors that are positively linked to increased virality.
It’s clear then, that if you want to engineer your content for increased social shareability, it’s not a simple case of tugging at your readers’ heartstrings and hoping for the best. To really pack a punch, you have to understand (and more crucially, test) which arousing emotions will be the best fit for your campaign, the most congruent with your core message, and the most psychologically engaging for your target audience.