Prototyping for Viral Marketing Ideas

“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”.

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ReTweet Etiquette

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with TED’s Chris Anderson. I’m not a big fan of “rules” for social media, but in certain circumstances it does make sense to conform to a certain community-set convention. With the existence of several ReTweet counting services and my ReTweet mapper, a certain regular format can also help make sure your ReTweets are counted and analyzed. Etiquette in social media is also pretty important, as it can help ensure that everyone gets along nicely.

TweetDeck has a ReTweet button so it has defined a kind of de facto standard format for ReTweets. It then places the cursor at the end of the tweet so many people add their own thoughts there.

RT @username: Original Tweet [Your Take]

Here are also some good rules of thumb to remember when ReTweeting:

  1. Do not start the ReTweet with an @ sign, as this will mean that generally only people following both you and the person you’ve @’d will see the ReTweet, defeating its purpose of increased reach.
  2. Try to credit at least the original Twitterer who posted the Tweet. If you have room, also try to credit the person who’s ReTweet you saw.
  3. The most common ReTweet format is RT: @username. Typically this is reserved for the original poster. A good way to credit the person who’s Tweet you saw, try adding (via @username) to the end of the tweet.
  4. If the original tweet included a call-to-action (like “please ReTweet”) try to keep that in your ReTweet, if you have enough room.
  5. If the original tweet has a link in it, keep it there. Also, try not to re-shorten the link using another service.
  6. If the original tweet has a hashtag, try to use it in your ReTweet as well (if you have room).
  7. Try to keep as much of the original tweet intact as possible, but it is acceptable to add your take on it (especially at the end, in parenthesis)

Did I miss anything? Do you have any ReTweet pet peeves? Let me know in the comments below.

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Viral Thinking: A Practical Framework for Viral Marketing

Inspired by David Kelly’s work on design thinking I’ve been thinking about a practical framework for creating social media and viral marketing campaigns.

I think one of the most important steps in this process is the “Research” phase. When I started thinking about this process, I used a metaphor from genetic engineering: If I wanted to construct the most infectious biological virus possible, I would start with the most contagious existing pathogens and work off of them. You might also study the spread of epidemics to identify the most important vectors. So in Viral Thinking, I’m suggesting that you model your campaigns off of those campaigns, ideas and memes that are relevant to your goals and have proven themselves to be viral.

Here’s my first attempt at it, I’d publishing this as a rough draft to get as much feedback as possible.

  1. Define
    1. What are the goals of your campaign
    2. Who is your target audience
  2. Research
    1. Identify relevant successful memes
    2. Identify relevant influential vectors and individuals
    3. Identify “information gaps” in your target audience
  3. Brainstorm
    1. Brainstorm many possible campaigns
    2. Brainstorm many possible seeding tactics
  4. Check
    1. Check your campaign ideas for “viral ingredients
      1. Novelty
      2. Simplicity
      3. Social Proof
      4. Utility
      5. Communal Recreation
      6. Incentive
  5. Build
    1. Build out several of the best campaigns
    2. Test these campaigns with a small portion of your target
      1. Refactor them as necessary to maximize the “that’s awesome” responses
  6. Seed
    1. Launch your campaign via as many seeding tactics as relevant
  7. Monitor
    1. Measure campaign analytics against your goals
    2. Monitor your target audience’s reaction to your campaign
    3. Refactor the campaign to respond to feedback where necessary
  8. Learn
    1. Identify lessons learned from each campaign
    2. Implement lessons learned in each successive campaign

Again, I’m posting this to get your thoughts on this process, especially how it could be better and more concrete and practical.

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Viral Tweeting Survey

To gather more data about how viral messaging spreads through Twitter, I’m launching a short survey. Similar in design to my Viral Content Sharing Survey, this brief questionnaire consists of 17 questions and should only take about 5 minutes to complete. The data gathered from just a few minutes of your time will allow me to continue to explore why and how ReTweeting happens.

Please, help me further my research into viral messaging and the impact of Twitter on content sharing by taking this quick survey; then, share it with your Twitter friends by ReTweeting this link (

Once I have a sufficient number of responses, I’ll analyze the data and publish a report on my findings. I anticipate that the survey will run for about a week or two in order to gather enough responses for scientifically sound data.

I need at least 1000 responses to extrapolate any measurable results, hopefully before the Twitter buzz dies down, so please take a minute to complete the survey and pass it on to a few friends, and keep checking back to see what I find. Thanks!

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