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“Going viral” has become one of those commonplace phrases that you probably hear several times a day. It’s a shorthand way of saying that a particular photo, image or article has become incredibly popular within a relatively short period of time. Most often, it’s based on a simple metric like number of page views on YouTube or number of likes on Facebook, and that’s about it.
In other words, there has been little or no differentiation between the different types of “viral” that are possible on social media. In the current view of “going viral,” a million views is a million views is a million views.
But, in many ways, this is a purely analog – rather than digital – way of thinking. It pays little or no attention to the type of social platform used, the marketing tactic used, or the incubation period used to make the idea virulent enough that it can be used to infect people (in a good way, of course).
That causes a number of problems for social media marketers. Clients assume that you can “make this go viral” (this is hard, especially if the content is not particularly compelling in the first place) or that your creative team can singlehandedly come up with an idea that is actually capable of going viral.
So what happens as a result?
Since a million views is a million views is a million views, the marketing solution to this problem becomes simple – blast this idea out to as many people as possible, in as short a time period as possible, just as you would with analog marketing techniques. That means hitting the biggest social media networks out there, contacting as many social media influencers as possible, and hoping for the best. And, if you’re asked to create something viral from scratch, go with what has already worked in the past – go with cute cats, people singing silly songs in the car, or crazy stunts.
What this approach ignores, however, is that there are different types of “viral.” For example, “word-of-mouth” viral – in which you feel compelled to tell others about a great product or service – is very different from more of an incentivized form of viral behavior, in which a company essentially rewards you (with coupons, discounts, savings) in exchange for getting other people to sign up for a product or service.
Think about it from an epidemiological perspective – the way that Malcolm Gladwell did when he wrote his classic book, “The Tipping Point,” more than 15 years ago. What he found is that certain ideas – call them memes, if you must – can go viral, but they need a lot of help. You need the right people to get “infected” with the virus, you need to have the right people to “spread” the virus, and you need to make sure that people are not already immune to the virus as a result of having built up antibodies over a period of time.
Yes, social media marketers are getting better at creating viral messages. But too many of these messages are reminiscent of 30-second TV commercials – some loudmouthed guy dressed in a funny costume, doing some crazy stunt, maybe surrounded by beautiful girls or funny animals. That’s what “viral” looks like in the analog world.
“Going viral” in the digital world, though, has so much more potential than that. And it certainly has more potential than the one-millionth silly cat meme you’ve seen on the Internet since breakfast. Eventually, people will develop antibodies to these memes, the same way they developed antibodies to 30-second TV commercials.
“Going viral” has the potential to truly and fundamentally infect people with ideas that can change the world — we just have to recognize that there’s a lot more to going viral than just cranking out silly photos or videos and adding hashtags to them.