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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{ 9 comments }

mimac October 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm

you say: “When you hook up a test subject to a brain scanning machine (like an fMRI, EEG, or TMS system)”

How is a TMS system a brain !scanning! machine?

Dan Zarrella October 23, 2008 at 12:40 pm

@mimac ok, you got me. TMS can be used to suppress the functioning of certain regions of the brain, so that their actions maybe understood.
So while its not exactly a visual scanning or mapping system, it does allow for conceptual “mapping” of functionality to certain points of the brain.

T-Enterprise October 24, 2008 at 5:14 am

Viral Marketing works because if its something eye-catching or out of the ordinary then people will tell each other about it. It will spread and propigate itself taking its message along with it, like a virus but not in a malicious way.

More and more businesses are looking into Viral Marketing as part of a marketing campaign. If done correctly it can provide a lot of new interest in a business or product.

As neuroscience gains a better understanding of WHY this concept works due to the make up of the brain then I can only imagine that in the future it will become a larger part of a marketing campaign with companies spending more money in this area.

Infonote October 30, 2008 at 3:55 am

Great post. I think you have a small mistake misspelling.

a percentage of the neurons in that premotor cortex also lit up when the monkeys watched another money or a person perform a task.”

I think you wanted to write monkey, not money.

Alain Lemay November 3, 2008 at 1:29 pm

Interesting. I have always attributed virality to a message’s ability to bypass Broca’s area, combined with a desire to achieve status (beine “the one” who sent that crazy vodeo everyone’s talking about) but this might also serve to explain some of it, or at least tie in to the “magic recipe” for viral success.

Larry Irons November 17, 2008 at 11:23 pm

Your take on the topic is a bit crude. Activity in one or another part of the brain is just that…activity. Take a look at Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman’s Marketing Metaphoria to understand why. It is the content of thoughts and feelings that matter, not where they occur. The brain doesn’t copy something, like a meme (if you believe in such things) unless it resonates with experience.

Dan Zarrella November 18, 2008 at 9:40 am

@larry “unless it resonates with experience” i agree that relying on existing mental structures is important (especially in memory-dependent oral communications), but I’m not sure its an absolute requirement for meme assimilation

Larry Irons November 18, 2008 at 3:17 pm

People don’t pass along any kind of content unless it resonates with experience, or they are paid for it…at least from what I can tell about social media.

Dan Zarrella November 18, 2008 at 4:25 pm

@larry would you agree that “fits within their existing mental frameworks” is another way of saying “resonates with experience”?