You’ve created the most awesome and incredibly infectious piece of viral creative in the history of man, or at least you’d like to think so. But now what? Viral marketing that nobody sees is hardly viral, so how do you “seed” your viral message, where should you post your content, who should you send it to, how do you get it to “go viral?”
In my study of viral behaviors, preferences, science and history, I’ve identified 6 criteria that viral seeding methods must possess to be worthwhile to social marketers. Depending on the content and its goals, the important of each of these criteria may vary, but they are present in some form in all great seeding platforms. After the list of criteria I also analyze the best and most common online viral seeding platforms and how they address my criteria.
Here are the criteria:
1. High Copying Fidelity
Richard Dawkins (the father of memetics) says that memes must contain 3 traits to be successful and one of them is “copying fidelity.” The idea must be capable of copying itself with a high degree of accuracy, otherwise it will soon become unrecognizable. A good seeding mechanism will allow for this and provide a way for users to copy and spread the viral creative in or close to its original form. Traditional offline word of mouth tends to have lower copying fidelity than online, because of the lack of copy-and-paste functionality, but even among digital communications methods, some provide greater accuracy in reproduction than others. For instance, SMS generally requires that a person retype the message before sending it to a new friends, whereas email has forward button that sends verbatim copies.
2. Increased Reach
Another of the 3 criteria for successful memetic spread cited by Dawkins is “fecundity”. That is, the faster a meme reproduces, the more successful it will be. For seeding this means that a worthwhile medium will expose as large an audience as possible to the viral message. My viral content sharing survey showed that one of the biggest motivations behind respondents decision to share a piece of content in a broadcast fashion was the increased reach the platform allowed them.
3. Prolific Audience
Beyond simply reaching as wide an audience as possible, the best viral seeding methods will expose as prolific an audience as possible to the message. My research has shown that savvy social media users tend to share content more often and with more people than normal web users, meaning that social media sites attract a very prolific audience that can spread your message further than the average audience.
The third criteria mentioned by Dawkins is longevity, a meme will be more successful the longer each copy of it survives. A good seeding platform will provide for some level of permanence, so that users can refer back to the source of the message in the future.
Individuals are exposed to countless organic memes and intentionally viral messages every day and the web has accelerated this trend. For a person to be attracted by a piece of content and decide to spend some of their time in furthering it, they must trust the source to some degree. Francis Heylighen mentioned authority as a memetic selection criteria in his 1998 work on the subject. Depending on the type of content, the level of trust required varies, for purely entertainment-based content, the trust threshold is low, it is higher for instructional content and still highest for news-type content. In social communications, typically trust comes from authority (a well known news source) or social proof, obvious signs that many of a person’s peers also trust the message. Common examples of social proof are the huge email-forward-chains that contain hundreds of email addresses, and the hundreds or thousands of votes a piece of content will receive on a social voting site.
One of the motivations most oft-cited by respondents to my survey was the desire of the sharer to start a conversation or receive feedback about a piece of content. Communal recreation is a reoccurring theme in social and contagious communications, including gossip, slang, rumors, oral tradition, and urban legends. The best viral seeding platforms will allow for viewers to comment on the content, adding their own take on it, and furthering the process of communal recreation.
Based on the above criteria, here’s a list of the best viral seeding mediums:
Social News Voting Sites
Sites like Digg, Reddit, Sphinn, etc, are great places (perhaps the best) to seed viral content because they center around links to the actual content, allowing people to spread exact copies of the original message, they tend to have not only huge audiences, but extremely savvy and prolific social audiences, links on social news sites not only remain visible indefinitely, but they also allow social proof to build in the form of votes and users can comment on individual stories (often these comments themselves can be voted on as well).
Blogs and Blogger Outreach
Blogs are probably the most obvious example of a viral medium that addresses the above criteria: high-copying fidelity, permanence, conversation, large and savvy audiences. For the marketer who wants to seed his content, the company blog may seem like an obvious, if all together too-easy way to do it, and truth be told, unless your company is very well known, its not going to do much good. The trick then becomes to get bloggers with large (and prolific) audiences to mention your creative. So make a list of bloggers popular (and trusted) among the savviest of your target demographic and build relationships with them and ask if they’re open to spreading your content.
Microblogging systems like Twitter and Plurk are newer than voting sites, but the have their own advantages for seeding viral content. Permanent links, large and savvy audiences, verbatim copying in the form of “retweeting”, social proof in the form of follower totals and of course, plenty of conversation and communal recreation. Seeding content on a site like Twitter can function much like viral blog promotion, develop your own high-reach profile and/or reach out to personalities with built-in audiences.
Social Networking Sites
While my research shows that Facebook is not an extremely popular source for virally shared content, marketers would be remiss to disregard its potential as a seeding mechanism. Most of the above mentioned criteria are present, particularly with Facebook groups and pages. The general social network audience is not as savvy and prolific as the Digg or Twitter audience, but the potential audience is much bigger on a site like Facebook.
Social Media Sites
Sites like Youtube present an interesting intermediary seeding platform, in that a video can be posted to the site and then the Youtube link can be promoted through the above-mentioned seeding mechanisms. At its core however, Youtube itself is a great platform that address the criteria I mentioned, increasing a videos audience on a site like Youtube generally requires getting it into featured or most-popular lists, a process which can be accomplished in a range of ways (from black hat to white hat).
Email, of course, is the original online viral medium and for many audiences and messages still the most powerful. What it lacks in a prolific audience it more than makes up for in sheer potential audience size, as nearly everyone who uses the web uses email. The forward button ensures copying fidelity and forward headers promote social proof. When a very mainstream audience is desired, (as in elections for example) email is often the best viral medium, with blogs and social networking sites coming in a close second.