I tend to look at social and viral marketing on a campaign level, evaluating viral marketing campaigns as a whole instead of individual components. For me, viral marketing science is all about figuring out what and how things spread, as opposed to the more general “how communities interact online,” and so the science comes in when various elements are interacting with each other and with the audience.
It is important to note that this does not mean that viral marketing is purely tactical; on the contrary, there is a great deal of strategy present in how these campaigns fit into a brand’s overall marketing mix. The science is in hitting the sweet spot between viral tactical elements and overarching marketing strategy.
The fields I draw from commonly include sociology, neurology, statistics, history, psychology (especially of the evolutionary type), economics, biology and memetics. I also use metaphors, terms and models from epidemiology as tools to help communicate about viral marketing, as these are much more commonly understood.
I see much of the information currently available about social and viral marketing as being comprised of two distinct types: conjecture-driven and data-driven. The former is the majority, a formulation of advice based on anecdotal evidence and “what seems right.” My work with multivariate testing, combined with research from The Tipping Point and Freakonomics, has shown me that the actual data often disproves the conclusions drawn purely from gut-feelings. My efforts have focused on creating content that is backed by facts, not feelings, and falls into the data-driven bucket. I call it viral marketing science.
The first thing that got me thinking about the potential power of scientific viral marketing was, surprisingly, a work of fiction: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. In it, the villain creates a biolingusitic virus based on a prototypical, brain-stem related Sumerian language. He uses the virus to basically enslave a whole bunch of people in a world domination plot.
I also believe that there is plenty of room for art in viral marketing; the creativity, intuition and improvisation involved in a successful campaign often come from a deep understanding of the data involved. But the brute creative genius most people assume is the core of contagious campaigns can make the entire exercise seem like black magic and entirely unpredictable. However, using scientific methods, it is possible for mere mortals to create repeatably viral campaigns.