Adland Digest FREE Edition #875
Nov 24, 2012

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Going Viral – A Closer Look at Successful Viral Engagement
By Vince Ginsburg ,

Going viral is the holy grail of any online ad campaign, or really any effort at online exposure, period. It’s akin to a TV show becoming a hit, or a movie raking in blockbuster gross sales. It can even be compared to a toy or item of clothing becoming the “hot” thing for the season.

So are these all comparable, or really just the same thing?

What exactly is something that’s “gone viral” and why do some things “go viral” while others don’t? Can this be predicted, or is it completely up to a whim or some ethereal “x factor” that some things have and others just don’t?


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The Facts of ( Viral ) Life

So what does viral mean? Viral refers to something that self-propagates, or in the marketing sense, something that spreads by word-of-mouth, peer-to-peer, as opposed to strictly from an official advertisement.

Going viral is valuable because the intended audience does all the heavy advertising work for you, ideally at an exponential rate. This saves money and resources in advertising costs and usually means more potent audience penetration; people are more apt to believe their peers than an advertisement.

People like to hear themselves talk, not be talked at. So when someone with similar interests whose opinion you hold in high regard recommends something, you are more likely to follow up on that suggestion than if you received that same call-to-action from some generic public advertisement.

Viral advertising or marketing is any specific advertisement or campaign that is ultimately intended to go viral. Usually these campaigns need to be highly unorthodox or creatively unusual in order for them to virally spread. In fact, many campaigns even appear as “real” or non-commercial in order to gain more viral effect.

Viral engagement is a more accurate term and perspective towards viral marketing. Because viral campaigns depend on an intimately enraptured audience for their exposure, this type of marketing isn’t just a typical “advertise once, then done.” It’s more of a continuous dialog, and as such, the nature of the campaign in progress may even evolve or radically change in order to retain its audience and/or attract more. It is less of a campaign towards a target and more of a dialog.

If traditional marketing is a lecture, then viral engagement is a keenly interesting conversation. There’s contribution, reaction, and progress from both parties, not just the initial speaker.

So the next question is what makes something viral? The better question is: what makes something worth sharing? And the most key question of them all is, why would you, yes you, share something?




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Going viral is most known on the Web, but really it applies everywhere. What is it about a movie that compels you to recommend it to a friend? Or for that matter, not to recommend it? Or a book, or a restaurant? Is it because that TV show or hotel was fairly good? Or was it simply because you were asked about your experiences with it?

Why would you pass on some piece of content to a friend? Is it because it made you laugh? Made you cry? Made you emotional? Was it scandalous? Did it make your curious? Was it greatly informative, perhaps on a topic you had no prior interest in or even knew existed? Did this content stump you, surprise you, or shock you? Or was it crafted so beautifully and in itself such a thing of beauty and art, that you had to share it with others? Or maybe, you simply wanted someone else to experience what you just experienced to feel like you did.

Maybe you are trying to initiate an empathic session, so that you can bond together afterwards by benefit of the mutual experience.

So which one is it?

Why, all of them. Maybe even all at the same time.

Sequencing The DNA

So how can this be harnessed? How can we predict what will go viral and what won’t? And more importantly, how can we create something that will deliberately go viral? That is the challenge, after all, and the reason why any Grail is so often sought is precisely because it is so difficult to obtain.

The most obvious approach is to make something that you would likely want to share. Ah, but personal tastes are so subjective. After all, who could’ve guessed that current and past trends would ever become, well, trendy! So, we then look to the polls, surveys, demographics and analytics. We look at history, at what worked and failed before, to try and draft together some sort of gauge.

Unfortunately, while viral marketers toil on this, their predecessors in the cinema, television, literary, and music industries have already long been at it. If there was any universal, all-time magic formula it has yet to be found. All anyone knows is that good things prosper and bad things don’t but quality is only determined in hindsight. While there are some loose guidelines, the exceptional nature of viral success has always been that the exception always seems to come up from behind. And many times the exception can be its own exception.

Cracking The Code

But there is one guideline that I believe comes closest to becoming a rule. If there is one dominant, persistent factor in any viral content, whether original commercial or not, it is this: it has to be content first. Content is, and always will be, king. Even viral advertisements, while obviously for commercial purposes, spread as they did because people valued them as pieces of content, not just as ads.

People don’t talk about Super Bowl ads around the water cooler because they love the brand and wish to espouse it. They talk because the commercial made them laugh, made them sentimental, made them experience. And they want to see if others shared in that experience. The brand just happened to be within that experience, but what made the commercial worth talking about — worth sharing — was the experience of watching the commercial.

People recommend movies and music to their peers not because they want to support the brand, but because they were engaged by the content and think their friends will be similarly engaged. Then they can engage one another in their mutual engagement of the content.

The point is viral material must be worthwhile content, even if it serves little to no direction in terms of being an ad. It may actually be a terrible ad by advertising standards. But as long as it is engaging content, people will like it. In fact, they may like it more because it’s not an ad. In fact, the less “broadcasting-lecture” it is and the more “hey, look at this,” the better.

People want something they can experience, and then in turn let others experience.



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It Hits You Hard

So how does one go about creating the right content to properly plant the seeds of a viral experience? Again, this is more difficult to pinpoint, since even terrible quality content can go viral. Is there a gauge that helps determine what content is good enough and what isn’t? Not really. The only constant that can be found is one that creates an experience in the user, and that is something both “good” stuff and “bad” stuff can provide.

The x-factor remains elusive, and has been in all the mediums. And the reason why it always will remain so is because experience itself is subjective and ever-changing. Tastes evolve and revolve, both because of experiences and by causing experiences. The only thing that can be harnessed is the generation of experience itself.

Give the audience something they’ll never forget and they’ll never forget to share.

What do you think about viral exposure and experience? Are there other sides to the x-factor that can be used?

Vince Ginsburg is a web designer and blogger for Corsair Media Services, which specializes
in online marketing strategies and development. He doesn’t just look at the current state of the Web to figure out what’s going on, but tries to understand why it’s happening.


Always eager for discussion, you can find him at his company blog or Facebook.



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