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”.

Read More

New TweetBack This Button

Just another quick post to let everyone know about the new button I’ve released for TweetBacks, you can see it on an older post, as well as on this one.

This buttons was graciously designed by Jeff at GoMedia who also did the bigger TweetBacks logo.

To use the number-of-TweetBacks feature you’ll need to turn on the TweetStats feature of TweetBacks, otherwise it’ll just say “Tweet”.

To use just copy and paste the code below like you would with a Digg button.

<script src=""></script>

You can also optionally provide your Twitter username after ‘from=’ and the text you’d like the TweetBacks to contain after ‘title=’. If you don’t include these parameters, the TweetBack will just include a shortened link to your post and your readers can provide their own descriptions.

Read More

A Very Beta ReTweet Mapper

I’ve been working on a ReTweet mapping system for a while, in fact, I’ve already published some data I accumulated while building it. The idea is to index all ReTweets and map them to each other so that visual display and programmatic analysis can be done on the structure of viral messaging on Twitter.

Now, I can finally publish a rough beta version of the mapping system. Click on the images to use the features. Please keep in mind: this all very beta still, and rough around the edges.


The ReTweet mapper is the core of the system, it indexes ReTweet streams into hierarchical structures that can be displayed visually as they are here. It also allows for further analysis as seen below.

The search feature allows you to search for ReTweet streams that match keywords, phrases, usernames or links. The search results page shows the original Tweet that started the stream that matched your query. Clicking on the Tweet brings you to the ReTweet map of that stream.

The most ReTweeted page shows a leaderboard of those users who were ReTweeted the most in the last day, hour or week. Clicking on the name of a user leads to a search for that user’s name.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Petition 2.0

While working on, I realized the flexible power of the online petition model for political campaigns and advocacy groups. It is low a lost cost tactic that can be used not only to create viral policy-affecting petitions, as well as to start or build on lists and communities for fundraising and awareness efforts.

So I took the code I used for No Internet Petitions, including the Facebook app and the and packaged it up. This way I can offer the full functionality in a custom-designed microsite for other individuals or groups who may want to leverage this powerful model.

If you’d like to discuss how I can implement this package for your campaign, or suggest something I should add to it, email me.

Read More

Link Attraction Factors: Report, Tools, API and Plugin

A few weeks ago I published my Link Attraction Factors report over on Read/WriteWeb and the response was awesome. I also made two tools: a keyword checking tool and a title checking tool.

The keyword checking tool
Enter a keyword and the tool will return data on popular stories on Digg that mentioned that keyword. The average story in my database got 299 links and this tool displays the difference between that average and the average number of links accumulated by stories using the word.

The title checking tool
Enter a title and the tool will breakdown the words and display the effect they had on the link accumulation of popular Digg stories. This tool is good for copywriters looking to find “words that word”. The scores are displayed in an easy to learn from way.

There have been a bunch of great blog posts about them, and some people have said some nice things:

I love it! Dan has developed a fascinating resource and I am sure it will only improve with time and tweaks.
Chris Garrett

I love to see people passionate about their craft who work hard to develop tools and products that help the community. Many people have created Digg tools and Dan has worked hard to create a new, unique tool of his own like his LAF tool. Simply plug-in your future Digg submission title, hit Calculate, and it will return the potential effectiveness of each word contained within your title. The keyword effectiveness is crosschecked with titles of past successful submissions. A fun tool that I’m sure many people will get a lot of use out of.
Brendan Picha

Great job, Dan! You’ve helped the industry take a huge leap towards quantifying the value of social media optimization.
-Hugo Guzman

Dan summarizes a large amount of Digg front page data to show us what categories typically get the greatest number of links. Interesting read, and I look forward to seeing other great studies from him in the future.

This is an amazing tool.
Troy Deck

This tool is great! Will try to write better titles using this tool in the future. Thanks for your great effort.
Robert de Bock

Never one to get complacent I’ve also developed an XML API version of the title checking tool and a WordPress Plugin version of the same tool.

You can access the LAF (Link Attraction Factors) database via a new XML API by sending your title through a URL (GET) variable like this:

The API will return an XML document of your results that looks like this:

	<title>this is a test title</title>

The average number of links is ~299, and the scores are calculated by comparing the average number of links accumulated by stories using each keyword in their titles against the average. They’re displayed in percentage format.

This is a plugin for the wordpress that checks a title against the LAF (Link Attraction Factors) database. The plugin will breakdown the words in your post title and display the effect they have on link accumulation.

A plugin version of the LAF Title Check tool, it uses the XML API LAF database interface. For more information about the LAF database, read the report.

Download the plugin now.

How to install WP-LAF

  1. 1. Extract the WP-LAF folder from the zip file
  2. 2. Upload the WP-LAF folder to your the plugins directory on your server
  3. 3. Click the ‘Activate’ link for WP-LAF on your Plugins page (in the WordPress admin interface)

So go, check them out and let me know what you think.

Read More

The Spoon Model

The Spoon Model. Simple, cheap, and incredibly effective, it is a pattern for word of mouth marketing and viral campaigns that I’ve been developing since first utilizing it for the USB Absinthe Spoon. It’s simple: create a cool product, then launch a contest where people are invited to tell you why they deserve one for free. Create an “Offer Page”, where viewers can submit their entries in a blog-comment fashion for everyone to see. (Less than 24 hours after the USB Absinthe Spoon offer page launch, there were almost 500 submissions – that’s 500 free, user-generated, word of mouth advertisements about how cool the product is.) Then, give the product away free to those users who are the most creative and seem the most likely to be Product Evangelists. They’re easy to spot by their awesome blogs and entertaining creativity.

I’ve since further developed and refined this model, and I’m now at a place with it where I have something I can share (and I’d love to hear your feedback).

The Spoon Model comes in 3 parts, or phases: the Big Seed, the Offer, and the Aftershock. The Big Seed is the most difficult, and the Aftershock is the most rewarding. The real key to the entire model is targeting and appealing to those social media users that are the most engaged in the process of actually creating, defined in Forester’s Social Technographics report as the “creator set” (bloggers are the most obvious examples of this group, but heavy Flickr and YouTube users are also creators).

The Big Seed
Even the most contagious of viral campaigns cannot sustain a transmission rate over 1.0 for very long, so the trick is to kick off every WOMM campaign with a “Big Seed.” By spreading the message far and wide by hand at the launch and attempting to secure as big of an initial “seeding” as possible, we can maximize the number of people who’ll see the creative. Social news websites like Digg and, as well as high-traffic blogs, are the perfect places to launch a Spoon Model campaign, because they are not only popular enough to be considered a Big Seed, but also, the viewers are typically more engaged social media users, and are more likely than the average web user to spread a viral message. However you choose to seed your campaign, you should link it to the next part of the Spoon Model, the Offer.

The Offer
The Spoon Model doesn’t take a lot of words to explain, and it doesn’t take a ton of time for a user to participate in or share. The idea is simple: tell us why you deserve a product, and we’ll give you one for free. Using the well-known product-giveaway model as a structure and inserting different products (which are hopefully somewhat unique and novel) means that the Spoon Model is a new twist on an old setup.

The invitation to public expression (don’t just tell us, tell the entire world why you deserve to win free stuff), along with the aspirational nature of a contest and a free prize, encourages people to strive to succeed and stimulates the word of mouth effect. Hopefully the product itself is also empowering in some way and the description of it on the offer emphasizes this.

There is an exhibitionist and voyeuristic edge to the pile of offer requests that develops in the first few days of a successful Spoon Model campaign. People can read, write and even respond to the endless comments that appear. Visiting the offer page becomes an exercise in social interaction, all focused around the experience of the product, and usually all glowingly positive (since everyone wants to win).

The Spoon Model also makes a direct appeal to most of the major social media user profiles (as defined in Social Technographics) and levels of engagement.

Creators, as well as critics, will have a field day crafting more and more creative and sometimes outrageous responses to the offer; Creators will also likely blog about the offer (especially if they’ve contributed in the comments section). Creator-level users are the best candidates for winners, since they will likely be the most fervent about creating content and buzz after the contest is over.

Social bookmarking links should be included on the offer page (as they should be included on most marketing efforts these days), and Collectors are likely to use these links, both during the contest and afterwards, if they’re selected as winners. Accounts should be set up at various social bookmark and media sites with pictures or videos of the product, and links about it, using one or a few tags that specifically relate to the product. Then the winners of the contest should be encouraged to contribute their media to these sites using the specific tags.

The pile of submissions to the contest will provide hours of glowingly positive user-generated ads for the spectator-level social media users to read through, and since it’s all user-generated, viewers will be much more likely to trust it.

The Aftershock
Hopefully, what we’ve done by drawing heavy social media users to the offer, engaging every level of social media interaction, and then putting our product in the hands of the best creators who ask for it, is to create a group of customer evangelists. If the product is good, the bloggers and other creators who’ve gotten a free one will be inclined to do what they do best: blog and talk about your product (and here’s your word of mouth advertising). We should encourage the winners to post pictures of how they use the product, and videos as well, to places like Flickr and YouTube (complete with the product-specific tags that we started on our own accounts on these sites). Each winner has the potential to (and being from the Creator set, it’s highly likely that they will) become a seed for an entirely new wave of the WOMM campaign.

Read More