OLC attended Social Marketers NYC’s The Changing Nature of Viral: Defining and Understanding What Goes Viral, with Fast Company, BuzzFeed and Microsoft on Wednesday, April 17 2013 at Offerpop’s headquarters in Midtown. Sharad Goel, Senior Researcher at Microsoft; Jason Feifer, Senior Editor at Fast Company; Jonathan Perelman, VP of Agency Strategy and Business Development at BuzzFeed; and Mark Cooper, co-founder and CMO at Offerpop all discussed at length about what it takes to become viral and the differences between virality and popularity.
Before the Internet, there was a book titled Masquerade that was one of the first instances of “going viral.” The author had buried a treasure somewhere in England, causing a sensation to try to find the treasure. Over two million copies of the book were sold. Next Burger King’s Subservient Chicken hit the Internet, in an attempt to sell more chicken, and the web page recorded more than 390 million views. Questions were raised about how content becomes viral—or rather, how it has the potential to become viral. Is it an eye-catching spectrum, or just happenstance? Is it the ability to participate in the creation of the content? Is it happenstance; that it comes out of nowhere? Can truly viral content be made to go viral or is it more of an organic growth? The panelists wondered if there was a formula or some sort of algorithm that makes people want to share and watch content.
Mark Cooper asked the panel about the definition of viral. Jonathan Perelman of BuzzFeed tackled the question first. “It’s actually like a virus. If you look at the way a virus spreads...make content spread that way. You can’t just make something go viral. You have to make something inherently shareable. The most important metric is the social reproduction rate,” he said.
“As far as I can tell, there’s no concrete definition of what ‘going viral’ means. Estimating that data is extremely difficult. What’s the likelihood of other people sharing content? Intuitively, it’s a two type structured definition: broadcasting and spreading from one person to another. It’s not looking at how contagious the content is, but at the chain of event prior,” Sharad Goel said.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what viral is and what ‘going viral’ means. I think what goes ‘viral’ these days shouldn’t be called viral. A lot of things that are ‘viral’ today are just things that have been seen a lot. I’m thinking that we need a different approach to think about and talk about viral,” Jason Feifer said.
Cooper acknowledged that it was interesting to think about the paradigm in that order. “What do you think about the idea of virality today? Is it small groups? Environment? Content? Are they the basic building blocks?” he asked. “When I think of things that spread, they come from so many different directions. I think the last commercial that made it on the web was that it made you feel like you needed to share it. There’s an element that has to go across community. One specific element has to transcend it,” Feifer said.
“Good content finds an audience. It’s important to understand that,” Perelman added.
“You do get into the habit of sharing content with a small group of friends. What about topicality” Cooper asked. “You have to understand how content travels around the social web. If you look at breaking news on social, Twitter is just enormous, but the half-life is very short. On Facebook, it can take a few fays from it to pick up and it can go on for quite some time when it does. BuzzFeed gets 40 million visitors a month and a majority of them come to share. People share content as social currency,” Perelman said.
Cooper asked the panel about the idea of ranking stories in relation to how it is being shared and becoming a trend. “It’s funny how common these tags have become, but I don’t know how it affects people from reading,” Feifer said. “It does reflect the way how content producers see people reading the content. A lot of traffic on Fast Web is driven from social,” he said.
“Our idea is that people share the content and it gets a lot of ReTweets, but that’s not necessarily viral. Just because something is re-shared a lot doesn’t mean that it’s viral,” Goel said.
Cooper asked the panel how they would go about creating viral content. “I think there are things you can do to increase your exposure—you don’t have to go viral. You make it easier to share, you’ll get more shares. There are very simple things you can do to increase exposure,” Goel said.
“There’s certain things that work that will increase your exposure, like having sharing buttons,” Perelman said. He then listed 12 points that supposedly will help content go viral:
1. Make something you’re proud of.
2. Social isn’t a trick, it’s a mindset.
3. Be yourself.
4. Test and iterate.
5. Have a heart—show emotion.
6. Content is all about identity.
7. Capture the moment.
8. Cute animals deserve respect.
9. Humor works.
10. Nostalgia works.
11. Human rights.
12. Don’t ignore mobile.
“Also, remember that there are things that don’t share well,” he said. “These are what we at BuzzFeed found to make content shareable.”
“Another thing is having content that people can refer to constantly. It’s a very simple idea that people easily forget,” Goel said.
“Looking at campaigns you’d view as viral, which are the best you’ve seen?” Cooper asked. “On BuzzFeed, there’s an ad campaign that GE is doing that puts customers—the consumers—in the driver’s seat. It gives them a choice. Virgin Mobile had a campaign for the Instagram Android launch and their campaign got 350,000 views and 310,000 were from sharing,” Perelman said.
“People have the transcend content to be viral. I’ve seen so many campaigns and it’s all mostly noise. I find them to be hard to remember. I think that raises the bar on creating a larger, more complex engagement,” Feifer said.
“I don’t know of any campaigns that went viral, but it’s very easy to perceive something as popular. You can see it on social media. It’s certainly possible to share content with your group of friends and it’s popular, it’s shared, but not viral,” Goel said.
“E-commerce is a big thing, but yet 88 percent of things are bought in brick-and-mortar stores. You think about person-to-person sharing and it’s branded—you’re going to have brand affinity. It’s hard to figure out, but it’s there,” Perelman said.
From here, the floor opened up to audience questions.
“How does outrageousness affect virality?” a member asked. “It makes me wonder why the content was made. I don’t give those kind of content a lot of time, but I still click on it. A lot of things I view have out-of-context things, which is probably why Gangnam Style did very well in America,” Feifer said.
An audience member asked about what makes products be shifted from just branded content to shareable branded content. “Old Spice wanted to shift their brand and they created a piece of content that almost made fun of their product, but played with a notion of their product. It communicated their connection with younger people. Brands talk a lot about communicating with consumers. Everyone just wants to have a conversation. It all comes down to people liking the brand and creating some sort of relationship with them,” Feifer said.
“What comes after viral? What’s the next step?” an audience member asked. “We have built a system that has the ability to quickly spread what we think should be shared. The next step is for brands and marketers to do more comprehensive community building and have content that is sticky, engaging and memorable. I think the next step is a more regular engagement,” Feifer said.
“A question we should all think about is why people share. People share to built relationships and you’re just trying to get good content to them,” Goel said.