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Charlie bit me: How can brands create viral marketing materials?

by Colin Strong , 05.01.2012

Most of us love getting a link to a piece of internet material which we find amusing and then forward on to our friends. It’s harmless and generally leaves us with a good feeling so it is easy to see why many brands are so keen to get in on the act. It’s also perhaps not unreasonable to expect digital viral material to potentially work well for technology companies given that the target market is likely to be spending more time online. Of course some brands do this extremely successfully, but many others try and fail – so what makes some succeed while others get consigned to the outer reaches of YouTube?

To try and answer this, I spoke to Dr Dominic Yeo, an academic at University of East Anglia with a particular expertise on this aspect of consumer behavior about research he had conducted whilst pursuing his PhD at Cambridge.

The main findings from his fascinating research are that whilst there are many reasons why a piece of digital material can go viral, findings generally point to two key factors. First, the content itself is (typically) emotionally engaging and possesses strong ‘participatory potential’ to enable further conversations, inspire new versions, spin-offs and so on. The second key factor is the need to ensure that the social-networked environment of the people passing it on is very strong with many followers or friends.

In terms of the content, Dominic’s own research has found that digital materials which go viral generally create a new spin on established behaviors. So, for example, we see twin babies appearing to talk to each other, a nerdy college kid doing his own take on star wars, a cat playing the piano. All of these are familiar activities, but with a highly unusual or provocative take. As Dominic says, “This means that the viral materials usually create some kind of ambiguity or controversy which generates conversations; this in turn drives consumers to pass it on”.

Discoverability also has a significant role in making digital materials go viral. Some consumers clearly love the whole process of discovering new pieces of digital material that they can pass on to their friends. The excitement of discovering new material is then almost matched by the vicarious pleasure of sharing this with friends and followers who in turn feel this as they send it on.

But ‘discoverability’ will only really work if those consumers discovering the material have significant digital networks. The double rainbow viral video with over 31 million hits on YouTube is a good example. This viral video, posted by Paul "Bear" Vasquez, tracks his sighting of, and emotional reaction to, a double rainbow from his home just outside Yosemite National Park. This video made no impact for a while until an influential blogger discovered it and shared it on his blog. It then went viral, clearly demonstrating the importance of social network in creating viral videos.