“When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large scientific method in most cases fails. One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.” -Albert Einstein
You can’t predict viral marketing. You also can’t guarantee something will “go viral,” then again, neither can you promise organic SEO results to a client. With search marketing there are best practices and analysis methods and tools. On the other hand, viral marketing doesn’t (yet) have these sort of guidelines to produce repeatable and sustainable results.
What we can do however, is to model our viral marketing ideas and campaigns from prototypical characteristics of historically contagious content. In biological evolution, successful genes arise by way of mutation from slightly-less successful ancestors.
If you look at past campaigns that had similar content, media and/or audience to your goals, common traits would emerge. These traits can be used as guidelines for future campaigns.
The patterns emerge from the selection pressures applied by the audience and media. If your audience is all on one type of platform, that environment imposes a unique set of pressures that determine which content is successful.
Twitter is a great petri-dish for analyzing viral content like this. A Twitter environment selects for short and simple ideas and powerful calls to action, whereas an email environment selects for strong sender-receiver relationships.
On the broad topic scale represented in ReTweets, useful patterns have already emerged, the most obvious example of which is “please retweet.”
Social news sites are another great place for modeling research, in fact most good internet marketers can tell you all about what structure of content do well on Digg, delicious, reddit, etc. The same holds true for most niches of the blogosphere.
Every email you get forwarded by someone is a potential prototyping source, this is especially true if you’re getting emails from the audience you’re trying to reach. Social networks could be a powerful source of information, but due to privacy concerns much of it is not readily available.
An important caveat here is novelty. In most forms of viral content, the newness and uniqueness of the idea is a vital component. In many places I’ve found a New/Old (inspired by Clotaire Rapaille) structure where either new content is put into a old structure, or old content is put into a new structure. An example of the former is “trackbacks for Twitter” and an opposite example is “cat pictures with lolspeak”.