There are many ‘modern’ marketing concepts in practice today that actually have pretty ancient roots. While it might seem like Facebook and Instagram are the parents of the viral storytelling approach, it’s more likely that our cavemen ancestors are the true lineage. Regardless of the family tree, however, viral storytelling has become the backbone of many advertising strategies.
In this article, we’ll take a trip back in time to understand the history of viral storytelling. We’ll also discuss some theories about why it works, and whether it remains relevant for marketers today. Let’s get started!
Why ‘Going Viral’ Matters and When It Started
In our modern lexicon, understanding the term ‘viral’ has become an important element in building up your ability to kick off a marketing ‘infection.’ This means taking a look at virality in the context of storytelling, and exploring where the concept came from.
To understand viral communication, we need to look at the evolution of storytelling in general. Storytelling is actually a well-researched topic in both the sciences and the humanities. In fact, neuroscience has tied storytelling to the release of oxytocin in our brains, which in turn has an impact on many areas of our lives (such as survival and decision making).
However, in terms of our economy, some researchers feel that storytelling may have an even bigger impact. While the history of storytelling likely dates back to the first woolly mammoth sighting, the rapid spread of information didn’t have a label until much more recently.
The concept of ‘viral’ content likely stemmed from one video in the late ’90s, depicting a cubicle worker laying waste to his desktop computer in a fit of rage:
It was distributed by email, and had originally been created as a way to market DVR-technology for surveillance cameras. From this humble beginning, viral content became such a staple of the online world that it earned a name for itself and started to present a lot of promise for marketers of all stripes.
What Contagion Theory Is and What It Means for Digital Marketing
The driving sociological theory behind viral communication came about in the late 1800s, and is called Contagion Theory. Essentially, this theory outlines how large groups can pass ideas from person to person like a germ, in a way that influences the behavior of individuals.
When it comes to marketing, contagion theory can be used to forecast your next piece of viral content. Its predictive power comes from underlying mathematical concepts that were originally used to predict the spread of disease. When you pair this theory with Metcalfe’s Law, which is a way to determine the value of a network, you have some useful tools that you can apply to your viral content strategy.
Why Marketers Should Still Consider ‘Going Viral’ a Goal
One of the benefits of viral marketing is that, if successful, a piece of content that goes viral can offer a significant Return on Investment (ROI). After all, when content is shared organically, you don’t have to pay for eyeballs. Of course, it’s important to note that there’s never a guarantee your content will actually go viral. There are some ways to increase your odds, however.
One of the reasons ‘going viral’ is still worth pursuing in today’s fickle social media landscape has to do with the staying power of word-of-mouth marketing. Its relevance as a method is as old as tribal storytelling, and technology only increases the pace and possibility of our messages going viral. So even though it might take some strategy and effort, getting content to go viral still has the potential to offer large payoffs.
A great example of this is MoonPie’s viral tweets. The sweet treat that originated in the early 1900s managed to leverage one quirky, humorous tweet that went viral in 2017, and sparked a whole campaign:
The tweet seemed to strike a chord with customers, which after all is the goal of viral marketing. The company went on to serve up several more tweets in the same vein, as well as a number of advertisements. This case study illustrates how viral marketing has the potential to achieve the same reach as paid advertising, but without the price tag. That’s an ROI you just can’t beat.
How to Begin Developing Viral Content
We mentioned previously that there are mathematical formulas to predict a piece of content’s viral potential. At the same time, there’s no guarantee that something will end up hitting that mark. To reconcile those seemingly at-odds scenarios, let’s look at some ways you can start developing content that’s more likely to achieve MoonPie-level virality.
First, let’s look at the numbers. To apply contagion theory, you need to first understand the scope of your potential audience. This data can be acquired through a variety of analytics tools. Knowing the value and potential of your networks helps to make it clear how many people can potentially pass on your content, helping it to go viral.
After that, you’ll need some actual content. The anatomy of a viral piece of content is somewhat subjective, but there are a few standard categories. These include:
- Blog posts or articles: These are typically well-researched and informational pieces.
- Videos: Short, easily consumed videos often go viral, because the user commitment is low and they are highly portable.
- Infographics: When the right balance of information and design is used to illustrate interesting facts, the result can be a highly shareable piece of content.
- Memes: Like videos, these are easily consumable and tend to hit the mark in terms of expressing exactly what your users are feeling.
Once you pinpoint the category you want to work with, you need to pick a direction and style for the actual content. One of the biggest indicators of viral success is whether or not the content is funny. Knowing your audience is vital when it comes to designing humorous content, however. You don’t want to risk alienating your customer base by striking the wrong tone.
The MoonPie example showcases how ‘on the nose’ that company was about its customers. The short, funny tweet also scored points in the ‘emotional connection’ category. In a general sense, viral content tends to be either dramatic, unbelievable, or emotional, or it may speak to a special cause.
In fact, The New York Times conducted research on the psychology of social media sharing, and found that one of the reasons people share content is that they are looking for emotional validation.
We often use digital content as a way to define ourselves to others, and knowing this is a key component to understanding how to build your content for social media. In other words, good viral marketers understand that users leverage content online to highlight their beliefs, likes, and dislikes.
If you can employ these theories and concepts, and apply them with an understanding of the value of your networks, you’ll have the essential ingredients for creating viral content.
Viral storytelling in marketing remains a relevant approach to getting the word out about your products and services. While its roots go back to early tribal communities, creating something that others will want to share remains part of our cultural communication process. Plus, it can be an extremely cost-effective way of getting your message out there.
How do you use viral communication to boost your business? Let’s keep the conversation going in the comments section below!