What makes something go “viral”?

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Chances are, if you’ve been working in union communications, you’ve been asked at sometime to “make something go viral” by a colleague or superior. If you’re like me, you probably silently sighed to yourself.

I’m a big advocate of social campaigning — that is, campaigns which integrate online and off-line action and emphasise the power of face-to-face and peer-to-peer sharing. In practice, this looks like a typical union campaign, where your members, potential members and supporters share your campaign with their peers, coworkers, friends and family. The main difference is that this happens both online and off-line.

Alex White - Twitter - viral tweet #savethereef
Here’s a tweet of mine that went viral.

It is worth taking the time to understand the value of word-of-mouth, and particularly peer-to-peer sharing.

The academic literature rates word-of-mouth as between 8.5 to 30 times as effective as traditional advertising, and for being the primary factor behind 20-50% of all purchasing decisions. What’s more, you don’t need thousands or millions of dollars for mass-media ads to get the benefit.

Instinctively, unions have known for decades the power of peer-to-peer and word-of-mouth. It meant members signing up their coworkers, becoming delegates and activists, and voluntarily sharing the union’s message. In the old days, this face-to-face contact could also involve pamphlets, journals and bulletins, stickers or posters.

Simply put, we are more likely to trust a message that comes from someone we know, trust and respect.

Influence on Choice

If your target audience’s friends and coworkers are talking about your campaign, you’re more likely to gain their trust, and in a more meaningful way than if you just cold-called them, sent them a letter or placed an ad in the local paper.

The rise of frictionless digital communications means that word-of-mouth communication happens much faster, and to a much wider circle of acquaintances, than in the past.

Instead of viewing social as an isolated communications channel, separate from traditional organising, today’s campaigners need to incorporate it as part of their cohesive campaign plans.

A Nielsen study from 2012 showed that 92% of people trust what their peers have to say about commercial brands, compared to just 33% for what the brand said about itself.

Although this statistic is for the private sector, the message is clear: Peer-to-peer is what you should be focusing on.

The real promise of social campaigning isn’t about getting to 100,000 Facebook fans or 500 retweets. It is about turning your membership and supporter base into an army of advocates for your union and its campaigns, and for the power of their recommendations to support your causes.

Give people a reason to share

This is a new way to think about influence.

In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference became an overnight best-seller and with it changed how people thought social influence worked. Gladwell propose the existence of a small group of hyper-social people, “connectors”, “mavens” and “persuaders” who were responsible for transmitting fads through a community. For a decade, this view of how society work became pervasive, and communications professionals in every sector ran around trying to identify the “influencers” and “mavens” of a particular community or group.

Unfortunately, Gladwell’s thesis, which was based on a single 1967 experiment by Stanley Milgram, was wrong.

Social diffusion of information and fads occurs through the social sharing of the mass of everyday people, not through a small group of highly connected individuals. (For more on this, see the book Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer): How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan Watts.)

Massively successful, viral sensations like Gangnam Style, Kony 2012 and those Dove commercials were massive hits not because they targeted social media mavens, but because they were engaging videos (or songs) with powerful messages that everyday people were delighted to share with their friends.

What this means is that you should forget about sites like Klout, which seek to identify particularly influential people. Rather, think of all your members and supporters as influencers. This way you can focus on creating engaging, powerful messages that your target audience, rather than an imagined “connector”, wants to see and share.

But what makes people share? According to a study from the New York Times, people share for a whole range of reasons.:

  • 75% say sharing helps them better understand and “process” news they’re interested in
  • 85% say the responses they get from posting to a social media site provide more thought
  • 94% consider how helpful a link would be to another user before posting it
  • 68% share as an advertisement for themselves, to give others a better sense of who they are
  • 73% say it helps them find people with common interests

Wharton School assistant professor Jonah Berger at the University of Pennsylvania answers this question in his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On:

  1. Social currency: We share to make ourselves look good to others. Think about how people like to talk about visiting secret bars.
  2. Triggers: We share when we’re prompted to. For example by a big spending advertising campaign or major events (when the Mars Rover landed on the Red Planet, Mars Bars sales spiked).
  3. Emotion: We share when we care about an issue, or get angry, or teary-eyed, or it’s funny.
  4. Public: We share because of the herd-effect, and because instinctively we feel comfortable doing what a lot of other people are doing. This is also known as social proof.
  5. Practical value: We share things we think others will find useful, such as videos about how to shuck corn, or discount coupon codes for the latest techno gadget.
  6. Stories: We share “sticky” stories, under the guise of idle chatter. Think about those urban myth chain emails, about car-jacking or Samsung paying Apple’s fines with trucks of 5 cent pieces.

Be sure to keep in mind these motivators and stats as you start developing social aspects to all of your campaigns.

All of this said, there are still individuals who you may want to target specifically online. The prime candidates for this attention are journalists or people with a particularly large traditional-media platform.

The reason for this links into second in the list on why things catch on: celebrities and journalists can help trigger larger groups to share something.

Consider again the Kony 2012 video, which was helped enormously through traditional media coverage and celebrity endorsement. Simply put, people were prompted to share the Kony video by the likes of Oprah featuring it on her show or seeing it on the morning news. However, Oprah alone didn’t make the Kony video go viral, the millions of people who shared it did.

Don’t obsess over this group though. Rather, include social engagement as part of your union’s normal media plan.