Leverage The Power of Scarcity for Social & Viral Marketing

Scientia potentia est.
In 1597 Fracis Bacon wrote those Latin words, meaning “knowledge is power” and never before has that been as true as it is today, however evolution has molded the human brain to understand and exploit that essential truth in such a way that it gives modern marketers a big lever with which to motivate individuals to spread our messages.

Information asymmetry is the idea that in transactions between individuals or groups, some parties have more information available to them than others, and those parties thus wield power over their ignorant counterparts.

Evolutionarily, I’ve studied how there are powerful pressures at work for people to not only imitate those of their peers who have (or appear to have) more information than they do, but also why it is beneficial for a person to share potentially valuable information with their social groups. In both of these instances, information, knowledge is power, but that power comes from asymmetrical situations in which only some people have the needed data.

If your tribe knows the best hunting or berry-picking spots for each time of year, it is in your best interest if only your tribe knows this, otherwise the resource will become over-used. And if you see a member of another tribe coming back with a huge bounty from a secret location, you’d better do your best to imitate him. Power comes not merely from knowledge, but rather from knowledge which is scarce.

Consider these two situations:

The biggest news story all month breaks on Saturday morning, and it’s being covered in ever media outlet on the face of the planet. On Monday morning, will you be sending a link about it to your coworkers? My guess is probably not, everyone will already be talking about it, and if not, I’d just assume they already knew about it because well, everyone does.

Now suppose that same news is going to break on Tuesday, but you somehow found out about it on Saturday. You probably see where I’m going with this, unless its not in your best interest (like a contest where telling others hurts your chances or even legal, NDA-type reasons), you are much more likely to be telling everyone you know about it, because chances are, they have no idea.

The reasons for this are varied, and my Viral Content Sharing Report uncovered a few of them. By possessing this powerful information and sharing it with their peers, an individual can build a reputation as a thought leader and ensure that people will share valuable scarce information reciprocally with them. Respondents to my survey also mentioned specifically that they share content with their friends when they are concerned that otherwise, that friend may not have seen it (I call this the they-might-miss-it hook). The survey also revealed that people often prefer sharing content from blogs rather than mainstream media sources.

What this means for the marketer is that we should include an element of scarcity in our social and viral campaigns. Invite-only betas are one example that springs to mind. Its also easy to title all of our blog posts “The Secret of…” but this is an overly-obvious marketing ploy and savvy users (who are the most contagious sharers) will see right through this, so try to develop a feeling of exclusivity and rarity more subtly.

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Viral Marketing Campaign Checklist

Once you’ve decided you’d like to create a viral marketing campaign, its easy to become too focused on the details, and miss the forest for the trees, but a good campaign is the integration of a lot of parts. Here’s a quick checklist to make sure you haven’t missed anything.

Goals Have you defined your campaign’s goals? Do you know what you’re trying to do (in an actionable and quantifiable way) and have you identified the metrics you will use to identify success? Keep in mind that certain, identifiable and targetable types of users tend to be more prolific in spreading content, be sure to target these people.

Vector Research Have you identified the demographic you’d like your campaign to “go viral” in and have you researched them to know what types of content they share and where they share it from?

Uniqueness & Novelty Is your campaign truly new? It can be a new take on an old idea, but there must be some kernel of novelty present because otherwise, who cares?

Utility Is your campaign useful, or will it improve user’s lives? If people believe they are helping someone by sending your content to them, it will dramatically increase your chance of going viral.

Incentive Have you provided some way for users to receive some kind of value by spreading your content? Freebies and product samples are an easy way to accomplish this.

Stickiness Have you included the ability for users who love your campaign to become engaged in a more long-term fashion with it? Email or Feed subscriptions are the obvious ways to do this.

Call to Actions Have you included viral calls-to-action that will trigger user’s desire to spread your content (which you should have identified in the research stage)?

Optimization Have you made sure that your content is easy to share? Is the URL short and permanent? Did you include tools for users to share it on social sites? If you’re using some form of video, can users embed the video on their own sites and profiles?

Remixing Have you made sure your content can be remixed by viewers? The process of communal recreation is important to “going viral” and you should make sure your campaign is a platform for users to express themselves with it. Think about things like personalization and customization.

Conversation Does your campaign have mechanisms in place to allow viewers to talk about it (both with you and with their friends)? Comments sections are the most common way to include this.

Seeding Once you’ve created your content, do you have a strategy for seeding it among users who are likely to share it? Don’t succumb to the “if you build it, they will come” trap, you need to place your campaign in the path of your target vectors.

Tracking & Analytics Do you have analytics systems in place so that you can track the spread and growth of your campaign as well as measure its performance against your goals?

Backup Plan Viral marketing success isn’t guaranteed, so typically I recommend clients plan to launch more than one campaign. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you have a plan if your first try doesn’t “go viral.” (Glen reminded me to add this in the comments, thanks!)

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My Viral Marketing Glossary

I put together a glossary of social and viral marketing terms because when writing I often find myself using terms and building on concepts that everyone might not be aware of (or use the same definition I’m working with).

So go check it out, and let me know if you have any term addition or definition edit suggestions.

And a bunch of people helped me out with this including (but not limited to, if I forgot you, drop me a line and I’ll add you) Nick from Heavybag Media and Benj Arriola.

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The 6 Viral Seeding Must-Haves

You’ve created the most awesome and incredibly infectious piece of viral creative in the history of man, or at least you’d like to think so. But now what? Viral marketing that nobody sees is hardly viral, so how do you “seed” your viral message, where should you post your content, who should you send it to, how do you get it to “go viral?”

In my study of viral behaviors, preferences, science and history, I’ve identified 6 criteria that viral seeding methods must possess to be worthwhile to social marketers. Depending on the content and its goals, the important of each of these criteria may vary, but they are present in some form in all great seeding platforms. After the list of criteria I also analyze the best and most common online viral seeding platforms and how they address my criteria.

Here are the criteria:

1. High Copying Fidelity

Richard Dawkins (the father of memetics) says that memes must contain 3 traits to be successful and one of them is “copying fidelity.” The idea must be capable of copying itself with a high degree of accuracy, otherwise it will soon become unrecognizable. A good seeding mechanism will allow for this and provide a way for users to copy and spread the viral creative in or close to its original form. Traditional offline word of mouth tends to have lower copying fidelity than online, because of the lack of copy-and-paste functionality, but even among digital communications methods, some provide greater accuracy in reproduction than others. For instance, SMS generally requires that a person retype the message before sending it to a new friends, whereas email has forward button that sends verbatim copies.

2. Increased Reach

Another of the 3 criteria for successful memetic spread cited by Dawkins is “fecundity”. That is, the faster a meme reproduces, the more successful it will be. For seeding this means that a worthwhile medium will expose as large an audience as possible to the viral message. My viral content sharing survey showed that one of the biggest motivations behind respondents decision to share a piece of content in a broadcast fashion was the increased reach the platform allowed them.

3. Prolific Audience

Beyond simply reaching as wide an audience as possible, the best viral seeding methods will expose as prolific an audience as possible to the message. My research has shown that savvy social media users tend to share content more often and with more people than normal web users, meaning that social media sites attract a very prolific audience that can spread your message further than the average audience.

4. Permanence

The third criteria mentioned by Dawkins is longevity, a meme will be more successful the longer each copy of it survives. A good seeding platform will provide for some level of permanence, so that users can refer back to the source of the message in the future.

5. Trust

Individuals are exposed to countless organic memes and intentionally viral messages every day and the web has accelerated this trend. For a person to be attracted by a piece of content and decide to spend some of their time in furthering it, they must trust the source to some degree. Francis Heylighen mentioned authority as a memetic selection criteria in his 1998 work on the subject. Depending on the type of content, the level of trust required varies, for purely entertainment-based content, the trust threshold is low, it is higher for instructional content and still highest for news-type content. In social communications, typically trust comes from authority (a well known news source) or social proof, obvious signs that many of a person’s peers also trust the message. Common examples of social proof are the huge email-forward-chains that contain hundreds of email addresses, and the hundreds or thousands of votes a piece of content will receive on a social voting site.

6. Conversation

One of the motivations most oft-cited by respondents to my survey was the desire of the sharer to start a conversation or receive feedback about a piece of content. Communal recreation is a reoccurring theme in social and contagious communications, including gossip, slang, rumors, oral tradition, and urban legends. The best viral seeding platforms will allow for viewers to comment on the content, adding their own take on it, and furthering the process of communal recreation.

Based on the above criteria, here’s a list of the best viral seeding mediums:

Social News Voting Sites

Sites like Digg, Reddit, Sphinn, etc, are great places (perhaps the best) to seed viral content because they center around links to the actual content, allowing people to spread exact copies of the original message, they tend to have not only huge audiences, but extremely savvy and prolific social audiences, links on social news sites not only remain visible indefinitely, but they also allow social proof to build in the form of votes and users can comment on individual stories (often these comments themselves can be voted on as well).

Blogs and Blogger Outreach

Blogs are probably the most obvious example of a viral medium that addresses the above criteria: high-copying fidelity, permanence, conversation, large and savvy audiences. For the marketer who wants to seed his content, the company blog may seem like an obvious, if all together too-easy way to do it, and truth be told, unless your company is very well known, its not going to do much good. The trick then becomes to get bloggers with large (and prolific) audiences to mention your creative. So make a list of bloggers popular (and trusted) among the savviest of your target demographic and build relationships with them and ask if they’re open to spreading your content.

Microblogging Sites

Microblogging systems like Twitter and Plurk are newer than voting sites, but the have their own advantages for seeding viral content. Permanent links, large and savvy audiences, verbatim copying in the form of “retweeting”, social proof in the form of follower totals and of course, plenty of conversation and communal recreation. Seeding content on a site like Twitter can function much like viral blog promotion, develop your own high-reach profile and/or reach out to personalities with built-in audiences.

Social Networking Sites

While my research shows that Facebook is not an extremely popular source for virally shared content, marketers would be remiss to disregard its potential as a seeding mechanism. Most of the above mentioned criteria are present, particularly with Facebook groups and pages. The general social network audience is not as savvy and prolific as the Digg or Twitter audience, but the potential audience is much bigger on a site like Facebook.

Social Media Sites

Sites like Youtube present an interesting intermediary seeding platform, in that a video can be posted to the site and then the Youtube link can be promoted through the above-mentioned seeding mechanisms. At its core however, Youtube itself is a great platform that address the criteria I mentioned, increasing a videos audience on a site like Youtube generally requires getting it into featured or most-popular lists, a process which can be accomplished in a range of ways (from black hat to white hat).


Email, of course, is the original online viral medium and for many audiences and messages still the most powerful. What it lacks in a prolific audience it more than makes up for in sheer potential audience size, as nearly everyone who uses the web uses email. The forward button ensures copying fidelity and forward headers promote social proof. When a very mainstream audience is desired, (as in elections for example) email is often the best viral medium, with blogs and social networking sites coming in a close second.

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