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On The Science of Virality and the Size of Your World

They studied 6,956 articles from the front page of the New York Times website, and learned something amazing about the kind of content we share and our motivations for sharing it. Hold that thought, we’ll come back to that story. When we talk about ‘virality,’ it too often conjures up images of the next Psy, Old Spice or other cultural phenom that has taken popular culture hostage by mouse pointer. That’s a bit like thinking of ‘contagious’ only in terms of The Plague or the latest H1 flying pig epidemic. When we talk about virality, we mean to say something that is highly contagious, and has the qualities to inspire a sharing action. It’s a Small World After All ‘Viral’ doesn’t have to take over the entire world. Author and PR deity David Meerman Scott presents that ‘your world’ is subjective to your business. It’s not the planet you’re on, it’s the audience you want to connect with that matters. If your content catches on with the 81.8 million citizens of Germany, that’s only a win if the people of Germany are an audience you serve. If your content catches on with 207 of the 268 organizations on the planet that can use your product or service, then you’ve infected your entire world, and that’s a huge victory. By the way, if you’re reading this and you happen to be David Hasselhoff, you’re exempt and undeniably awesome by any measure. Continue to rock. The point is, a contagious, sticky, catchy or viral success doesn’t have to sweep the planet, it just has to sweep your world. Anything extra above earning the eyes and ears of your entire world are bonus bragging points and a ‘nod’ to the awesomeness of your content. Content to Sneeze At Six thousand nine hundred and fifty six front page articles from The Times website. The H7N9 virus had a way of compelling people to spread it; it caused people to sniffle and cough, and these actions helped spread the virus to the point of becoming a burgeoning epidemic. In fact, almost every major epidemic in history has spread because the virus caused the afflicted to spread it unknowingly. The same is true of viral content. Content that ‘goes viral’ has a way of inspiring sharing from those who come in contact with it. While much has been speculated about what it takes for content to be truly great, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman performed one of the most in-depth studies into the topic I’ve ever seen. I won’t steal Jonah’s fire. The full research is available at where you can also find details of his latest book, Contagious. Get it – it’s awesome. First, viral content isn’t any more random than a strain of H7N9. It catches on specifically because of a unique set of properties and just the right conditions. Second, it’s really, really hard to synthesize virality, but knowing the milestones of catchy content can help in planning everything from social media to TV advertising. Jonah and his research team examined 6,956 articles from the New York Times and cataloged them based on everything from word count and complexity to emotion and practicality. They went so far as to note time of day and even if the author was male or female. The results were remarkable. Catchy Content Emotionally Viral Emotions move us, and so it would make sense that emotionally charged content would also move us. This was mostly true, but not all emotions motivate. You’re sore, tired and have a headache. You’re hanging around the house and don’t feel like going out today. You’re likely sad, and it’s one of the least motivating of all human emotions. Likewise, stories that make us sad don’t elicit sharing actions. Who wants to send an email when you’re bummed-out? I’m just going to go lay on the couch a bit. You’re literally jumping and hollering with excitement. You’re team has won the big game against the undefeated giant, you got a high score on Words with Friends and your favorite band from the 80s is having a reunion tour that kicks off in your city! #Joy! The immense and overwhelming physiological forces to move that come with joy confirm that joy is one of the most motivating emotions on the planet. You want to share this moment so badly, shout and cheer in your own living room and could care less if the neighbors hear! It’s not enough to emotionally charge your messaging, you want to ensure that the emotion is likely to inspire action. ‘Content’ doesn’t move us, sadness halts us. Joy, awe, anxiousness and anger set us into overdrive. Catchy Content is Usefully Viral Jonah goes into great depths on the topic of ‘social currency.’ Essentially, the concept is that by sharing things that are valuable because they are either entertaining or useful, we inherently earn a little of that value each time we help somebody. If you’ve ever seen a friend struggle to put a new key on a key fob, and you show him how to open it with a nail clipper, you know the sense of pleasure that comes from helping; it is personally gratifying to share something useful. This is partly the reason why infographics are so well shared (all the research on a topic in a handy, easy- to- understand format) or why guides and how-to’s are some of the most prevalent types of content in most content marketing mixes. Nurturing Virality Virality can’t be manufactured, but if we can give our content everything it needs to help it along that path, our worst case scenario is that we’ve created something highly engaging and useful that simply didn’t reach a tipping point –and we’re more practiced for the next try. Meanwhile, I’ve never heard the complaint from any marketer that ‘my content is just too engaging for the audience that finds it.’ Find the emotional angle, it’s there somewhere. Amaze, inspire, and make us awe-struck. If a blender can do it (e.g. Blendtec’s ‘Will it Blend’) then trust us when we say there is something to discover in your offering. There’s a story in there if you’re brave enough to find it – and share it. Have a point. Every great story, movie, speech, tutorial and even this blog post has a few things the creator wants you to walk away remembering. Keep yours in mind, and remember to ensure that your take-aways are something people want; what’s in it for them? “I want my audience to know that I’m the leading-edge industry expert, award-winning, state-of-the-art, number one provider,” is going to be a hard sell. “I want the audience to know that my product can survive anything you throw at it,” is at least an interesting show, and at most a good mental note when it’s time for your reader to make a purchase decision.  
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