ProtoViral: A Contagious WordPress Theme

Over the past year or so I’ve been doing research into the why and how of web content “going viral,” from my Link Attraction Factors report (with the accompanying tools, API, and plugin) to my Viral Content Sharing Survey report. I’ve also taken this behavioral data and distilled it into more actionable items like a viral marketing checklist, viral seeding requirements, and of course the 10 symptoms of highly viral WordPress themes.

Out of this research has grown my latest project, the ProtoViral WordPress theme. Built to be flexible design-wise, it allows you to customize it to match the look and feel you need, while including a wide range of flexible and powerful viral marketing features built right into the theme. I’ve rolled a bunch of functionality that previously existed only in plugins into widgets and ProtoViral’s configuration panel, making them easier to control and integrate into your design.

ProtoViral is still in development, but some of the features so far include:

  • Referrer-based Content Filters (show special content to visitors from specific sites)
  • Easy to turn-off Ad space
  • Customizable and Widgetized social voting buttons that can appear in a variety of places
  • A Tweet-this button that automatically creates shortened URLs when you publish posts
  • Pre- and post- entry call outs (invite readers to subscribe to your feed or follow you on Twitter
  • Funnel links (direct traffic from every page on your site to a specified post)

Here’s a screenshot of some of the functionality on the configuration panel:

And here’s the voting widget configuration:

I’ve been putting the theme through its paces on a new site I launched last week called GreenOverrun and so far it seems to be doing pretty well, with 13,153 visits to its 3 posts since it launched 10 days ago.

If you’d like to test it out or give me suggestions on additional functionality (I’ve been surprised the entire time by how much you can do with a WordPress theme and have a whole new appreciation for WP now, so don’t hold back on pipe-dream ideas), let me know in the comments below.

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The Evolution of Viral Marketing and Social Media

Change is at the very core of evolution and without it, all creatures would look alike and behave the same way.
-Martin Dansky

Communication has always been a social phenomenon, stretching back through time since before written language. But the rise of the internet has created new forms of media for memes to travel through, accelerating their spread and changing the selection pressures applied upon them. Each type of contagious media has its own criteria for success that are largely determined by the evolutionary pressures applied on it.

The first memes probably spread through humanity not as written, or likely even spoken word. Early humans were subject to the most brutal evolutionary meme pressures in that the information they learned was often a matter of life and death. One person could learn the location of a good hunting spot, or which berries were poisonous and the rest of their group would learn from them. Thus, mankind evolved to be especially adept at imitating the actions of others. If someone else was doing something, it was often a good idea to copy them, rather than try new and potentially dangerous new things.

The Homeric poems were authored hundreds of years before they were ever written down. Something about those poems, and the rest of the oral tradition kept them alive and traveling from person to person by literal “word of mouth” only. For instance, referential elements are rare in pure-oral cultures and stories are very often shaped as a David-and-Goliath-style narrative. This type of evolutionary environment demands that these poems were easy to remember and had built-in redundancy to protect vital plot elements from the contortions of purely oral transmission.

Written language allows those individuals and organizations with the tools and infrastructure for distribution to broadcast ideas to masses of people, but average people seldom had access to the same mechanisms. The only source of “authoritative” information was from the mainstream media. This means that even after written language was developed, peer-to-peer (truly social communication) occurred almost exclusively by speech.

Oral memes have propagated in a variety of forms including rumors, gossip, urban legends, slang, and proverbs. While these were sometimes also published in printed media, before the web they existed almost entirely in an oral context. These memes were still operated in a landscape where memory and retention are the most scarce resources, so those that grew and spread were very good at being remembered. Because authoritative content came only from top-down structures at this point, there were often “information gaps”, things the masses didn’t know about but wanted to. These vacuums were often quickly filled with legends, rumors and myth.

Chain letters are one form of contagious, pre-web, written, peer-to-peer media. But the postal service is a slow and limiting broadcast machine. We did not see the real power and reach chain letters were capable of until email came along. Recording a meme outside of the brain by writing it removes the selection pressure for easy to remember memes, so some of the mnemonics common in oral communication took a backseat to other features. Instead, there is a higher level of commitment and engagement (and postage investment) required before an individual will resend a letter, so the most valuable evolutionary trait for chain letters is their ability to motivate readers. Motivations come in the form of dire warnings of bad things that will happen to the reader if they “break the chain” and promises of great fortune if they continue it. In successful chain letters most of these claims are designed to be unverifiable, so they’re impossible to disprove.

The advent of the web gave average individuals the tools to quickly and easily send memes to not only those people they know personally, but also to re-broadcast them in one-to-many ways. this change allowed peer-to-peer communications take a written evolutionary path. The web allows users to spread exact duplicates of memes. Users can cut-and-paste the URL of a story and pass it on, in its original form to as many people as they like. This radically changes the selection pressures on memes by removing the need for the meme to be extremely efficient in lodging itself in its host’s memory.

The high copying-fidelity of the web makes it easier for more (even complex and referential) memes to proliferate and and the increased reach it gives the average person provides for a larger set of possible hosts. This means that the sheer number of memes (or attempted memes) has grown astronomically and their spread has accelerated, creating a new selection pressure for successful memes– they now have to cut through the clutter. Successful web memes are the ones that are most effective at quickly engaging user’s attentions and exploiting the huge reach bestowed upon users by the internet.

Email chain letters evolved from their written counterparts and exploited a powerful feature of the new medium: the forward button. When emails are forwarded, not only does the sender send an exact copy to some or all of his contacts (nearly eliminating the memory requirements found in oral memes) but the software usually attaches a list of other people who have resent or received the letter. These headers become a powerful form of social proof and are perhaps to blame for many email chain letters’ infectiousness because they play on human’s innate drive to imitate.

Instant messaging is another new media that has changed the face of social communications by allowing for two-way, real-time, written dialog. A more informal and personal method than email, memes that succeed through IM are often those that remind one person of another and will start or continue a conversation between the two people.

Social news sites have grown as a memetic watering hole for highly-influential savvy web users. Sites like Digg and Reddit are regular must-reads for an unprecedented collection of highly contagious individuals. Voting and commenting is often publicly visible on these sites which stimulates the need for an overwhelming amount of social proof before a meme “breaks through”. Social voting sites are the media that has best evolved to leverage the imitative nature of social interaction.

Blogging has its own set of more subtle social proof indicators. Readers take into account everything from the design and grammar of a site to the number of comments on each post and the number of subscribers to the blog’s feed into account when deciding if it is “authoritative” enough to spread.

Microblogging is one of the newest forms of contagious media and we don’t yet totally understand the selection pressures present for memes on sites like Twitter. The low-level of engagement required for a user to spread an idea combined with the high-speed of new content updates means that those memes which ask most directly and strongly for users to spread them tend to do very well without much motivation required.

Clearly, this is a pretty general survey of the evolution of viral marketing and social media, so I’m asking you guys to let me know what you think some of the selection pressures present in new media forms are.

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The Neuroscience of Viral Marketing & Social Media

In man’s brain the impressions from outside are not merely registered; they produce concepts and ideas. They are the imprint of the external world upon the human brain.

-Victor Frederick Weisskopf

The premotor cortex is a part of the frontal lobe of your brain. It is responsible for mental planning of movement and sensory guidance of motion. When you hook up a test subject to a brain scanning machine (like an fMRI, EEG, or TMS system) you’ll see this region of the brain activates when the subject performs some sort of action.

Scientists (including Giacomo Rizzolatti) studying monkeys in the 80’s and 90’s found that a percentage of the neurons in that premotor cortex also lit up when the monkeys watched another monkey or a person perform a task. The scientists called these cells mirror neurons, and evidence has been found since that indicates that humans also have these empathic neurons, and they don’t reflect motion only, they’ve been found to mirror other frontal lobe functions like sensations and emotions.

These discoveries give some credence to the emphasis Susan Blackmore places on the evolutionary importance of the human mind’s ability to imitate. In her book Meme Machine, she postulates that our uncanny skill for imitation is what allows us to transmit memes.

The thesis of this book is that what makes us different is our ability to imitate…

The concept of mirror neurons also puts a neuro-scientific framework around the socio-evolutionary theories of Informational Cascades. The selection pressures in favor of imitation may now be seen as having influenced the development of specialized mental hardware for copying others.

A 1980 paper by John Conlisk titled “Costly Optimizers and Cheap Imitators” showed that “imitators may have as high a long-run ‘fitness’ as optimizers“, and in 1992 Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd published a report called “Cultural Inheritance and Evolutionary Ecology” where they showed that in many instances social learning (like imitating your peers) is preferred by natural selection.

In applying this knowledge to viral marketing and social media, we must remember that at their most simple level, idea viruses are nothing more than bits of mental source code that say “Copy Me!” And the rapid spread of the Viral Tweet Test shows us that, to some degree, merely self-replicating memes are viable.

And while I don’t have an EEG setup to start researching with (yet, the Emotiv headset is scheduled to ship around Christmas), from a functional point of view, the act of spreading a meme or virus or piece of content to your friends (after the initial “seeds” spread it) is an imitative one. Someone sends you an email forward, and you turn around and do the same thing.

What this means for marketers is that one of the best viral “calls to action” is to allow the reader to see other people doing what you want them to do. Social proof is a sort of indirect or implied version of this. It may also indicate that we should seed our campaigns in ways that reflect how we want them to spread. Looking to “go viral” via email? Start an email forward and include all those headers (yeah, yeah, I know, this was pretty obvious already).

I think the real value in understanding mirror neurons is the potential for future testing and research. Using brain scanning (like that Emotiv EEG headset) we will be able to test the process of social media and content sharing to see if these regions of the brain are being used and optimize our messages to activate these imitative brain cells.

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The Importance of Social Proof for Contagious Blogging

In 2007 the Washington Post conducted an experiment. They had one of the best musicians in the world to play one of the most expensive instruments in the world (a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin) on a subway platform during morning rush hour. Most people simply ignored him, “the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.”

There were no tuxedos or playbills or expensive tickets. No sold out concert halls or rave reviews from jaded critics. Just some of the best music in the world, but without the social cues to the quality of the performance, nobody noticed.

So even if you’re the best writer in the world, writing on a world-class web platform, with a groundbreaking design, without social proof, you’ll be very lonely.

Social proof is the idea that people rely on the reaction of others to make decisions, and we assume that others (individuals and especially groups) know more about the choice than we do. When social proofs start to accumulate you have an informational cascade. In a post a while back, I explained Information Cascading as such:

Suppose there are two restaurants and a group of people on the street outside deciding which one to eat at. The most well-informed individuals (those with higher precision in making these types of decisions) will decide first and everyone will see some people start to line up outside of one restaurant. If the others know this person is of higher precision (and even if they don’t) a few people will follow their lead and join the line. Each new person who lines up outside of the restaurant sends a signal to the rest of the group (and in particular their friends and family) that this is the restaurant to pick. The more people who follow the signal, the stronger it gets and you have an Informational Cascade.

When I studied email chain letters I wrote that

Every time someone forwards one to his or her address book, another list of recipients and senders is attached to it, creating essentially a list of people who implicitly give authority to the message.

Even if you may think an email is a hoax, who are you to think that you know better than hundreds of your peers?

Examples of this effect are numerous, from voting to investing to fashion and music– we notice, trust, and share things more when we notice that others did before us.

When I asked on Twitter what factors influence perception of a blogs “authority.” The two overwhelmingly central answers were subscriber and comment counts. Social Proof.

When people first visit a blog these two details matter as much (if not more) than professional and clean looking design and good content, spelling and grammar in an evaluation of that blog’s authority. And I’ve found from my study of applied memetics, email chain letters, and viral seeding that authority and trust are crucial factors in deciding whether or not to pass on a piece of content. The bottom line is that you must leverage social proof to establish an air of authority if you want to “go viral.”

There are a number of ways to leverage your blog readers into greater social proof indicators:

  • Prominently display your Feedburner count.
  • Use the “Recent Comments” widget.
  • Display the number of comments for each post.

Of course for any of these tactics to work, you’ll need to have sufficiently impressive numbers, so work to increase those two metrics. Don’t forget to promote your RSS feed (I really like the WWSGD plugin for that) and end every post with a question or request for comments.

And of course to take my own advice, what do you guys think? Do subscriber and comment numbers matter to you? What is your favorite way of leveraging your visitors into social proof?

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10 Symptoms of Highly Viral WordPress Themes

Blogs are my favorite CMS for “going viral.” Cheap, easy, expandable, everything you could want. But when you’re launching a blog and your goal is going to be lots of social media and viral traffic, you’ll need to make sure you pick the right theme. Here are a list of 10 things your theme must have to “go viral.”

1. Social Buttons

Most blogs these days have the sociable plugin, so that there is a list of social sites at the bottom of every post that allow readers to submit and vote on the post. For real traction, you need to do better than these teeny little buttons. Put big, honkin’ voting buttons on every post on your site. For instance, I really like what Brent Csutoras does on his blog.

2. Images and Video

Experienced social media marketers will tell you that you should always add images and if you can, video to a post to help it do better on social voting sites. So you should make sure that your theme’s central content area is wide enough to handle high-quality images and embedded videos. I would typically recommend at least 500px wide.

3. Lightweight

If your post does start to go viral, you’ll be getting hit (hopefully) with a server-crushing load of traffic, often in a very short period of time. So beyond being on a good host and using a caching-system, you should also work to ensure that your entire theme is lightweight. Optimize and reduce your images, cut down on HTML bloat (no tables, please) and strip down your javascript. Not only will your server thank you, but your visitors (especially those from social news sites) will appreciate the faster, cleaner theme.

4. Low-Advertising

I would recommend ideally, not to put any advertising on your site if your goal is to go viral and do well in social media, but that’s not always feasible (or profitable). So if you absolutely must include ads, keep them away from the top of your content and ensure that they blend in well with your site and are, above all, relevant. A good blog theme should include advertising areas under each post and lower-down in the sidebar.

5. Urgency

My research has shown that timely content, like news, tends to get shared more frequently than humor, opinion and other non-timely categories. So your blog theme should emphasize the date and maybe even the time that you posted.

6. Authority

To go viral you’ll need for your content to be trusted on some level. So your theme should induce a feeling of authority. Don’t use extremely common (or default) themes as these will make your blog look fly-by-night. Make sure to include an about page, any awards or recognition the blog (or author) has received, and perhaps a photo of the author. Tell the visitor why he or she should invest them time in this blog and trust what it has to say.

7. Built-In Viral Calls-to-Action

The sociable plugin allows for a line of text, a viral call to action, generally something like: “if you like this, please share.” For real infectiousness, I say take it a step further and include a call to action in theme of your blog on every post page. Try hitting on some of the viral triggers my survey outlined and give readers easy suggestions on how (or who) to share the content.

8. Piggybacking & Funneling

The concept of piggybacking is something I think (and talk) about a lot. The idea is that if your content becomes popular with a group of savvy users on one site, you can often count on those users being members of other, similar sites. This way you can leverage one traffic stream into more streams. Funneling is something that I read about a little while back. The concepts are similar and can be exploited by a good blog theme. Make sure than posts link to other, similar posts. Your theme should include something like “if you liked this post, check out these too.”

9. Emphasize Comments

On a blog, in a viral context, comments function as social proof (making it obvious that other people are also interested in this post) and as an incitement to respond and keep the conversation going. So your theme should include an area to highlight recent comments in the sidebar, as well as the number of comments on each post. You may also want to look at improving your comment section, with gravatars or a reputation system for frequent commenters.

10. Stickiness

Those people who come to your site as a result of it “going viral” or becoming popular on a social news site, are the type or are most likely to be able to make it do that again. So keep them around. Your theme should highlight your feeds, subscriptions, Twitter account and your various social media profiles. You want these savvy and contagious users to become frequent users.

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9 Scientific Ways to Make Every Post More Contagious

I’ve spent the last year or so doing research into the history, sociology, statistics, psychology and mathematics of information sharing (many of the posts I’ve done about this stuff are over in my sidebar under “Protoviral”). I’ve found a number of reccuring elements across areas of study, so here are some of the bits I’ve learned that you can apply to almost any blog post to make it more viral.

1. Ask for the Share

This can kind of sound cheesy, but believe me it works. Respondents to my Sharing Survey reported a bunch of triggers you can pull to convince people to spread your content including utility (share this with your friends who might find it useful) and “they-might-miss-it” (show this to you friends who may not see it otherwise).

2. Fill an Information Vaccum

In my research on rumors, I found that scientists working on weaponizing rumors during WW2 noticed:

… that good rumors are “provoked by” and provide interpretation or elaboration on a current event, filling a “knowledge gap.” If the locals heard a big boom earlier in the day, a rumor could easily be constructed to explain it if the authorities did not.

3. Allow Remixing

Give your readers something to play with, remix or customize. The study of urban legends uncovers a concept called “communal recreation:

Historically urban legends were passed on from person to person in what amounted to a giant game of telephone with each person changing the story a little bit as they passed it on. Each person in this recreative chain attempts to fit the story into their existing mental frameworks and in doing so they apply a bit of themselves, of their own values and perspectives, altering the story and retelling their version. Often the first person in a new society to effect this change to an urban legend makes the legend more intuitive for the rest of the group because he or she has imposed their shared values on to it already.

4. Optimize for Social Media

Make sure that you have all the requisite buttons and widgets prominently available on your post. This is important for leveraging streams of traffic from one site into popularity on other sites. Lots of users of one social voting site are users of other sites, so if you start getting traffic from one, put a voting button under their mouse.

5. Provoke Discussion

You can be controversial, contrarian, outrageous, slightly disagreeable, or just a tad-too-opinionated. The point is to make people want to respond to you and to see how their friend’s respond. Respondents to my sharing survey said that they often shared content in both one-to-one and one-to-many ways because they wanted to start conversations and get feedback.

6. Teach

Utility was another common motivator I found in my survey. Make your content valuable so that when your readers share it, they’re engaging in a social exchange with their friends as happens with proverbs. A little while back I said this about the concept:

Its all about useful information, words you can use to do stuff. Like the old saying goes, everyone has an opinion, but not everyone can teach you to do something. Content is dead and resource is king.

7. Combine Relevances

Every individual has seemingly distinct interests. I’m into zombies and marketing, so if you wrote a blog post about marketing to zombies my friends would most likely send it to me. This tactic is a way to satiate the most common individual sharing motivation I found in my survey, “personal relevance”.

On the individual sharing side, the most common (40% of responses) motivation I identified was “personal relevance.” These answers typically said something like “I saw something and it made me think of one of my friends,” or “It seemed right up my friend’s alley.”

8. Seed it

Some of the people you know, or the communities you’re involved with will be more interested than others in your post for topical reasons. And a subset of these people are more prolific sharers than the rest (usually the most savvy early adopters). So make sure your content gets into a place where these people will see it as soon as you launch it. Twitter is a great place to do this.

9. Assist Organic Spread

Use a real-time analytics system (like Clicky’s Spy -aff link) to watch where traffic is coming to your post from. If you notice that a new social media site is driving traffic to your post, add that button to the top of it and maybe send the link out on Twitter.

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When Viral Marketing Attacks: 9 Epic Viral Fails


Viral Marketing is a tricky thing, and like fire and government it is powerful servant but a fearful master. While companies scramble to “go viral” and produce the next overnight web sensation, the road is fraught with danger and the gutter littered with epic fails, here are 9 of my favorite examples of viral marketing failure (with one bonus at the end).

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theater

The most famous (and ridiculous) recent example of viral marketing FAILs is the Great Boston Bomb Scare of 2007 ™. In an attempt to create hype around its upcoming movie, advertisers behind Aqua Teen Hunger Force paid some weird dudes to hang sticky LED signs all over the city. The city freaked out, thinking they were bombs and shut everything down, arrested the kids and fined Cartoon Network a whole bunch of money. But at least now it has its own Wikipedia page.

Ashanti Death Threats

Failing R&B singer Ashanti thought it would be a good idea to promote her new album by launching a viral marketing campaign that allowed people to sent their friends death threats. Yes you read that right, death threats. Amazing idea really.

Read more here.

Chevy’s Create Your Own Tahoe Commercial

Chevy created a user generated advertising platform for a campaign for the Tahoe. Things went wrong when users started making ads critical of the big car maker’s fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness. Commercials typically included stuff like this:

Hey, 2,325 U.S. kids have died, 16,653 have been injured, and up to $2 trillion will be spent to keep our oil supply safe. If you support the troops you’ll get out there and use some of it! Chevy Tahoe: Don’t let all that blood go to waste.™

You can read more about it here.

Virgin’s B3ta Competition

Virgin started a contest on the popular designer website for users to create images of what would happen if you said yes to everything. What Virgin ended up getting was a bunch of offensive pictures of Richard Branson. The guys behind the site had this to say about it all:

“Yep, they pulled the challenge. Yep, they were told before they opened it exactly how it would play out. Yep, they asked us to delete it. Yep, I think the whole thing is funny.”

Read more about this failure here.

Starbucks Free Iced Coffee

Sometimes the campaign doesn’t have to fail to turn against its creators, sometimes it just has to work too well, like Starbuck’s free iced coffee for friends and family efforts. The coffee chain sought to entice friends and family of employees to come into the store for free iced coffee, but when word got out about the offer and the respones was bigger than expected, corporate headquarters nixed the promotion. Details on this one here.

Dove & Axe Mashup

Unilever’s success with socially responsible Dove viral ads found resistance when a Youtube user made a mashup of the Dove ads and some of Unilever’s Axe commercials, which many consider sexist. Axe ads were used to show how on one hand the company objectifies women, while on the other, it pretends to care about the daughters of America.

When real, authentic organic viral growth just seems too difficult, companies periodically resort to other tactics to generate online buzz about them, like Sony tried to do for its PSP. The electronics company hired an outside agency to create a fake astrotuff blog called “All I want for Christmas is a PSP” to help sell more of the hand held media devices. When they were outed they faced huge public backlash. AdAge covered the lesssons marketers should take away from this debacle.

Working Families for Wal-Mart

As if Sony’s epic fail didn’t teach the PR world enough, Walmart hired firm Edelman who created an astrotuff blog allegedly written by average working families to counteract the bad public image the mega chain has suffered from for years. When the blog was outed as a fake it further damaged Walmart (and Edelman’s) shaky reputation. Learn more about that one here.

Sarah Marshall

An attempt to market a new Judd Apatow movie led some misguided agency to post signs all over various cities proclaiming their hatred for a poor girl named Sarah Marshall. Well, it turns out, Sarah Marshalls do really exist in the real world. Oops, their B. Read about a few disgruntled Sarahs here.

What Viral Marketing Could Turn Into

Lets end on a little humor (as if there were none in the above examples).


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Viral Tweet Test Results Part 2: Timeline & Transmission Rates

The first meaty bit of data I’ve pulled out of the results is a timeline of the growth activity including retweets, comments and clicks through to the page. I’ve also marked the times when popular users retweeted and when it first hit the “Trending Topics” list.

And here are some rough numbers based on the first day of the experiment (after which activity slowed to a trickle):

          Total % of Clicks % of Comments % of Tweets
% columns show transmission rates (ie % of people exposed to page who Tweeted it)
Clicks 1,826 N/A 13.75% 15%
Comments 251 13.75% N/A 91.6%
Tweets 274 15% 91.6% N/A

I’ll be pulling more complex data out of the results also, including an attempt at actually mapping the spread of the Viral Test Tweet through Tweets, followers and retweets. And as before, if you can think of any other data points I may be missing, please let me know.

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Viral Tweet Test Results Part 1: Trending Topics and Forking URLs

Yesterday morning I launched a little off-the-cuff experiment in viral marketing via Twitter. I made a simple page on my site that asked people to retweet the link (and I specified a shortened URL from tinyurl to aid in tracking, or so I thought). I also asked people to comment on the page with their Twitter username and the name of the person who’s tweet led them here. And then I tweeted it, at first once, asking for retweets, and throughout the day I posted it maybe 4 or 5 times.

The response was bigger than I could have imagined. As of this writing there were over 200 total tweets by other users that used the words “viral tweet test.” I wanted to study not what makes things go viral in Twitter, but the infrastructure. I wanted to start answering questions like how do you track a viral meme or message’s organic growth and spread on Twitter (without hashtags)? What is a baseline exposure-to-retweet transmission rate? What would a mapped social graph of such a viral tweet look like? I’ll admit it was a pretty unscientific test, for a lot of reasons, but I did learn a lot.

The first thing I learned was that merely specifying one shortened URL ( does not mean that is what everyone will use, so using a tinyURL as a tracking method is flawed. Pretty early on that URL forked into a Twurl URL that some folks were using ( and some people even managed to get the page’s whole URL in their tweets.

I named the page “Viral Tweet Test” just as a quick label and it stuck, so using those words as a search worked pretty well, but even this method did not catch everything as some people called it a viral Twitter test, or used other words entirely.

The repeated use of this name in the tweets did produce one unexpected result: shortly after the launch of the test “Viral Tweet Test” was listed as a “trending topic” on Twitter Search. This actually drove less interest and traffic than one might assume, but my analytics system reports that it sent just over 100 visitors to that page (this number is artificially low because some URL shorteners do not carry HTTP referrer values. It appears that the phrase became a “trending topic” after about 35 tweets containing the phrase from approximately 30 different users. Once the stream of tweets started to slow, it fell off the list of topics.

The majority of momentum around this died off about 5 or 6 hours after the first few tweets, but even as of this morning, there is still a slow trickle of comment and retweets coming in. I’ll be analyzing the data more deeply in the next few days and will have some more quantitative stuff coming (the charts and graphs I’m so fond of). What data points would you like to see from this little experiment?

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Analytics for Social & Viral Marketing

Social and viral marketing are all about knowing your audience, especially that most infectious segment of your target that you’re considering your seed vector, and the best way to learn about them is through analytics. I’ve been thinking about analytics for viral marketing for a few days and then I saw a post on Social Media Explorer about analytics for bloggers, which sparked me to write this post. There are 3 stages of usage for analytics in the viral marketing process: research, growth and evaluation. And one sort of theoretical one: testing.


When you’re planning your viral campaign, you should first focus on researching your target audience as I suggested in my checklist. This means not only understanding the demographics, preferences and behaviors of the entire group you’d like to reach but also identifying that segment of your target that shares content the most frequently and with the most people, this will be your seed vector. Typically these people are early adopters who are savvy social media users and you’ll be aiming to seed your content in a place where they’re very likely to see it.

Say you want to reach an older, more affluent female audience rather than the typically young-techy-male demographic that frequents sites like Digg. Head on over to Quantcast and look at the data on some sites like Kirtsy, Sugarloving, BlogHer, and StumbleUpon. You’ll see that of these sites, Kirtsy best matches your target audience. Quantcast also gives you some great content preference data indicating which category of sites Kirtsy users tend to like:

Jewlery/Luxury Goods
Politics & Commentary

To expand your list of target seed sites beyond Kirtsy, you can then jump into Google’s Ad Planner and find sites with audiences that match Kirtsy’s. Here you’ll find sites like CoolMomPicks, and The Pioneer Woman. You’ll notice that for some sites (including The Pioneer Woman), Quantcast even offers links to other sites that share the same audience which you can use to further expand your seeding site list.

Now you know where to put your content so that it will be seen by the most social-media-savvy members of your target demographic and you know which types of content they prefer viewing.


Lots of sites use Google Analytics, its a great tool and unbeatable for the price, but there is a reporting delay of a few hours so it doesn’t do much good in those critical hours right after you launch your campaign. To help manage and accelerate the seeding and growth phases of your campaign, you’ll need some sort of real-time-analytics.

I use and like Clicky’s spy feature (affiliate link). Using a real-time spy like this allows you to see where your traffic is coming from, right now, so if your campaign does begin to go viral and users start reposting it and sharing it across the web, you’ll be among the first to know. If your most recent blog post started getting a little popular on Digg and you noticed in the spy that it also began drawing traffic from Mixx, you could give the story a little exposure on Mixx too (perhaps by Tweeting about it or adding a Mixx button to your post).

Real-time-analytics and acceleration like this is an important paradigm to understand in social and viral marketing. You can’t just go and shove your content everywhere they’ll take it, real growth and contagiousness is organic. It is better to carefully and effectively seed your content in a few choice places and then let the savvy and prolific audiences exposed to it in those places spread it further. When they do begin spreading it, make sure you’re there and ready to pour gas on the fire.


Once you see that the growth of your campaign has started to plateau or slow down, it is time to leverage your analytics for evaluation. This is the stage where you compare your metrics to the goals and KPI you set before you began the campaign. Was the goal of this to get more links to your site? Check your inbound link count. Was it to generate blogger buzz? Do some blog searches for your campaign on sites like Technorati and Google Blogsearch. Were you trying to drive traffic to your site? Look at your Google Analytics reports. Were video views your goal? Click the Statistics & Data tab on Youtube and see how well you did.

Beyond simple traffic metrics, there are some more advanced systems available that allow you to measure the number of times your content was shared, some platforms (including emails and press releases) will tell you the number of times people used the send-to-a-friend functionality. I’ve also played around with a concept idea that can measure how many times your link was sent (via any online communication method, IM, email, Facebook, etc) and viewed as well as develop a viral family tree of sorts showing which seeds led to the greatest eventual growth. I may release some version of this in the future, and I know there are similar proprietary solutions available that do almost similar things.


The more advanced tracking and family tree tracing system I mentioned above leads into a possible use for analytics in viral marketing that I have not seen actually developed yet. It is theoretically possible to develop a split or multivariate testing suite that tests content not against conversions or even engagement metrics (time on site, page views per visit) but against actual content sharing. This way we could test which words, images and designs lead to the content being shared the most and actually begin to quantify ‘virality’. Has anyone seen anything like this working in the wild yet?

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