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How to make something go viral.

how to make something go viral

Come spring, golfers spanning the world set their tee times, dust off their clubs and take to the links for yet another season of slapping the little white ball across acres of rolling green. 

Each golfer might take a few thousand or so swings at the ball every year and tens of thousands over the course of their entire golfing career. Yet, a select few have ever scored the coveted “hole-in-one.” 

In fact, according to the National Hole-In-One Registry, a hole-in-one is scored once every 3,500 rounds of golf. Considering there are 18 holes in every round, that means that once every 63,000 holes some lucky golfer smacks a ball and watches as it lands, rolls and miraculously drops into the cup. 

At times, chasing viral marketing feels similar to the hole-in-one. 

Like the golfers, marketers book their content schedules and begin shooting videos, snapping pictures, recording podcasts and writing blog posts with the word “viral” illuminating in the back of their skull. 

Once in a great while, a marketer watches in awe as a piece of content does the impossible –– it goes viral. And, like the golfer, the marketer is left scratching her head wondering: how the hell did I just do that and how the hell can I do that again?

Viral Marketing: making the impossible, possible. 

While I can’t tell you the likelihood of content going viral, I would like to think that us marketers have better odds than golfers at scoring a hole-in-one. 

Regardless, what I do know is this, like the mechanics of a golf swing, there are tactics marketers can learn to drastically improve their chances at making the impossible, possible. 

In this short ebook, I will be sharing insight I’ve learned from reading brilliant marketing minds like Jonah Berger and Seth Godin, as well as sharing my own experience with viral marketing while running my copywriting and content marketing shop, Honey Copy

But, before we dive into what viral marketing is (for those of you who don’t know), let’s get one thing straight. Viral marketing is not, by any means, the end all be all for brand growth.

You can turn brands into behemoths without ever scoring a viral hit. And, in many cases, viral does not equate to “valuable”. 

So, while going viral is a fun way to speed up awareness for your brand, it shouldn’t be the main driver in every piece of marketing you put out. 

If good consistent valuable content marketing is a scoop of ice cream, viral is the cherry on top –– it’s damn nice to have but by no means necessary. 

What exactly is viral marketing? 

My nine-year-old self almost shit my pants the first time I saw a kid cruise by in a pair of Heelys. His toes were pointed skyward as he nonchalantly floated into class wearing what looked to be a pair of big bulky sneakers. The other kid’s reactions were the same as my own. Everyone was feeling mixed emotions of bewilderment, awe and desire. 

Within a week, half of Hebron Elementary was zipping too and fro in clunky sneakers designed to have a fast spinning wheel in the heel. Heelys had hit a home run –– they had successfully created something viral. 

Viral Marketing is when a product, service, idea or promotion spreads rapidly from person to person like a virus. While today most people associate viral marketing with rapid sharing that takes place on the web and via social media, the phenomenon first got its debut in the physical world. 

While Heelys was by no means the first instance of viral marketing, it’s one of the earliest examples I can remember from my childhood. By creating a simple but genius product, a funky fusion between a clunky shoe and a roller skate, Heelys made millions. 

At first glance, the weird sneaker skate is ugly and not that noteworthy. But, what caused the product to spread was something that Jonah Berger, the author of Contagious, describes as “observability”.

Heelys went viral because kids actively used their product in public and as a result, other kids observed as their peers skated around in them.

We will learn more about triggers like these that improve our chances at scoring viral hits in the next section. However, the key take-away here is this: push a snowball downhill rather than uphill. 

In other words, if you can build a viral element into your product, a lot of the marketing will take care of itself –– saving you time, money and energy down the road. The marketing guru, Seth Godin defines this as creating a purple cow –– creating a product that’s so noteworthy that people can’t help but share it with others. 

Some Viral Marketing Examples, Tips and Tricks. 

The viral marketing we see in the physical world is not that unlike the viral marketing we see in the virtual world –– many of the same tips, tricks and triggers work for both. 

I would argue the reigning king of viral marketing to be Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business who I just mentioned . In Berger’s book Contagious, he claims that viral marketing is heavily influence by six main drivers –– social currency, triggers, emotion, practical value, stories and public (which we touched on in the previous section). 

To sum these up briefly, I’ve bulleted them below and have included both descriptions and examples.

  • Social Currency –– people share ideas, products and services when it makes them look good, clever or well-informed. The Hustle is an example of a viral hit of sorts. Friends share this trendy email newsletter with other friends because it makes them look more informed and ultimately intelligent. 

  • Triggers –– top of mind leads to tip of tongue. When brands can associate the products they’re selling with regular every day activities their customers do, they can sell a lot of shit. This is why Twitter has caught on so well. Users think “Twitter” anytime something noteworthy happens in their day and then they tweet about it. 

  • Emotion –– emotional content gets shared, period. Take a look at Mashable’s top viral videos of 2018 and you’ll notice they all have one thing in common –– they spark emotional reaction. They inspire feelings of awe, sadness, happiness and amusement. 

  • Public –– monkey see monkey do. Products and services we can easily see and imitate have an easier time going viral. There is a reason Apple has a big glowing apple on the back of it’s laptop, it’s so others can see people using them. Public is perhaps the most difficult driver to apply to the digital world. The best most brilliant example I can think of here is Pokemon Go. Remember all those folks running around the streets trying to catch virtual Pokemon? It’s public nature was the reason that app spread so rapidly. 

  • Practical Value –– people like to share helpful insight with others. Two years back a writer by the name of Zdravko Cvijetic accomplished something on Medium that had never been done before –– he wrote an article that received 87,000 claps from 57,000 people. He created one of Medium’s very first viral articles. While the article was well-written, it was made up of thirteen extremely applicable pieces of insight. This practical value helped the post spread like wildfire. 

  • Stories –– people like to listen to stories and they like to share stories with others. How many times have you asked your friend to tell that one story a 27th time? Brands that leverage the power of storytelling improve their chances at seeing their content go viral. In Berger’s book, he gives the example of Google’s Parisian Love where they tell a story by using Google search. It gives me chills every time I watch it. 

Now, the question becomes how can you and your brand leverage these drivers to achieve viral marketing with your content or products? If you need any help, don’t hesitate to send me a note at cole@honeycopy.com.

By Cole Schafer.


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Cole Schafer