Viral Plague
Viral Plague


The Virus of Viral

A new, virulent plague has afflicted communications agencies and marketing departments all over the world; one that’s based on the flimsy notion that consumers can’t wait to latch onto branded content and share it with their friends.

In fact, there seems to be a prevailing thought that some sort of “consumer sharing pipeline” exists, all of them eagerly awaiting for their weekly dose of “Old Spice”. Do people really sit around of a Friday afternoon, scouring the interwebz, looking for a corporate video to fulfil their obligations and scratch the “viral” itch for the week?

Realistically, we know it’s not true. Despite all the chat about social creativity or shareability, sharing is something people do for two reasons alone:

  1. To benefit their friends
  2. To make themselves appear smarter/funnier to their friends

Just because your company thinks it’s important, it doesn’t make it true for most consumers. YouTube is littered with the detritus of agency and client attempts to create “virals” that have gone miserably – and expensively – wrong as a result of ignoring these fundamental principles.

Sharing is good

Sharing is a core part of the human existence. Socialising and discussing information and ideas can be mutually beneficial, while improving the welfare of our friends has a strong intrinsic value, and may also have the beneficial side effect that our friends start thinking better of us. Increasing the esteem we’re held in may act as the major motivator to share for some people, but is often merely the unintended benefit of sharing.

The two criteria listed above should be used to test the appropriateness of the content created by communications agencies and marketing departments. Ultimately, if they want their message to be shared, companies must provide content that adds value. That’s important not just because they want it to be, but important because it really is genuinely interesting, emotional, rational, relevant and salient. Or just laugh-your-ass-off funny.

Hurdles to Sharing

In order to content that people will actually share, it must at least be objectively brilliant, and should also satisfy all of these criteria:

  1. Access – The content must be extremely simple to access
  2. Consumption – It must be very easy to consume
  3. Comprehension – It must be self-contained and easy to understand
  4. Benefit of sharing – It must be beneficial to my friends and/or make me look better
  5. Cost of sharing – weighing up the ease of sharing against the benefits of going through with it. It should be ‘worth it’.
  6. Perceived benefit of receiving – when the person receiving it thinks it’ll be good, they’re more likely to investigate it
  7. When they benefit and/or think better of you because of it
  8. When they think their friends will benefit and/or think better of them by passing it on themselves

The Long Tale

Even if it’s great, it doesn’t mean it’ll be rapidly shared. Viral is an outcome, not a strategy. There are many excellent examples of brand information and other video storytelling that aren’t “viral”. Good content that’s well executed and is always there, always on, always accessible, will always be viewed, slowly but surely. This kind of content simply makes sense. It’s an effective way of extending communications across media; less about the short term-high burn, and more about the “long tale” of storytelling over time – where a single YouTube video can achieve reach and be of benefit for years to come.

As an industry, we need to stop getting over-excited by the lure of free distribution and rapid spikes in viewers and realise that, just like any other medium, social media has costs. Only then might we be cured of this epidemic.

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