How to go viral: The first secret

Lesson 1: Understand social currency

Brent Coker is an expert in online consumer psychology. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at some of the ideas he explores in his book Going Viral:The 9 secrets of irresistible marketing. It’s a worthwhile read for anyone working in Public Relations who wants a greater understanding of how to go viral (and who doesn’t?)

The first secret, Coker explains, is to understand the difference between traditional marketing and what happens on social networks. Classical marketing techniques, which saw brands ‘push’ their message to us through television, radio and print advertising, were often about gaining attention through being provocative. This includes explicitly sexual advertising, negative advertising, and going for shock value.

Because the audience was not a stakeholder in transmitting the message this was a great way to generate a buzz – people could chat about what they had seen the night before on TV over their morning coffee at work. Sex sold. Controversy sold. Often, negativity sold (See: every US presidential campaign).

And in classical marketing environments, sometimes they still do. But the world has moved on, and social campaigns are an entirely different ballgame.

How to go viral

go-viral-social-mediaWith the move to digital, audiences were no longer mere consumers of ads and PR campaigns – they could share and shape them, add their opinions and thoughts. Marketing departments that failed to grasp this have struggled to maintain their share of voice. In the past, this was largely dictated by who had the largest budget – so what’s a traditional marketer to do in a world where small businesses can make a huge splash with a cleverly orchestrated viral campaign?

The answer lies in social currency. People share things because they want to be seen in a certain way – your friend who constantly shares TED talks likely wants to be seen as intelligent, while your friend who shares memes wants to be seen as funny. Our social currency encompasses our status within the groups we belong to, the respect we have and our reputation; for a PR campaign or ad to be sharable, the target audience has to feel like sharing it will enhance people’s opinion of them.

The simplest way of putting it is this: You have to give people a reason to share.

Will it make them seem trendy to their peers? Maybe they want to be seen as ambitious? Or well-read? A share is often a signal of the person’s value system. Understand your audiences priorities, and how they want the people around them to see them – and then the kind of content they find sharable should come into view.

Most people won’t share explicitly sexual or overly controversial campaigns, because they are too personal for social networks. Increasingly, people are mindful of what they share, and wary of going against the grain (we all know our future employers will Google us).

Coker claims that being interesting is not enough. With the overwhelming amount of content available online, we consume interesting content from a wide variety of sources on a daily basis – to go viral, people must be given a specific reason to share, and the first of these is that it may shape their image to  the outside world.

So, that’s the first in a mini-series on how to go viral. What’s your view? Have you ever had campaign go viral? What was the secret sauce that made it happen?

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