Every marketer has heard thatABSTRACT great content with a good influencer strategy can lead to virality. This simply isnt true. Virality is not dependent on good content or disproportionately influential people; its based on the ability of content to spread freely across a network.
SO, WHAT IS CONTENT? When I say content, I don’t just mean a YouTube video or a blog post. Content can be an idea, a product, a behavior, or a service. Content is anything you want people to advocate for and consume.
YOU’VE HEARD THE SAYING… Content doesn’t actually matter as much as you think it does. You can create the best content in the world, but if nobody consumes it, it is considered unsuccessful. This happens all the time. Think of all of the products, songs, movies, and other content created every day. Do you believe that all good content becomes successful? Or that all successful content is good?
TIME’S TOP TEN VIRAL VIDEOS OF 2011 1. Rebecca Black – Friday 2. Man with Golden Voice 3. VW Darth Vader Commercial 4. Lonely Island — "Jack Sparrow” 5. Father-Daughter singing “Home” 6. Webcam 101 for Seniors 7. My Drunk Kitchen – Brunch 8. Anderson Cooper Cracks Up 9. Dancing Thom Yorke 10. Honey Badger
There are very few commonCONNECTING WITH CONTENT attributes between these videos. The content ranges from a Super Bowl commercial to a father and daughter covering a song sitting on their bed. There are millions of cover songs, commercials, and music videos on YouTube. These videos did not go viral because of their content, they went viral because of how groups of people connected and reacted to the content.
THERE IS NO VIRAL FORMULA There is no way to predict what will go viral. Common sense says that the first step to going viral is creating “great” content, but that’s not possible. So here lies our conundrum, it impossible to define “great” content without it already being considered “great”.
THE MONA LISA DILEMMA When we try to describe great content, we run into what Duncan Watts describes in his book Everything is Obvious. It’s not possible to define “great content” without describing what the content is. What makes the Mona Lisa Great? The subject matter? The smile? The layers of paint? The composition? None of these things? All of these things? The Mona Lisa is great because it has the properties that make up the Mona Lisa. This is circular logic.
HE WASN’T THAT GREAT A popular example we can all relate to is The Old Spice Guy commercials. What made it great? Most would say “It was original, funny, and appealed to their target”. The problem is, there are many commercials that set out with the same goals. It is only after the campaign became popular that we can peg its success to its attributes.
THE MICRO / MACRO PROBLEM Describing content as the reason for success sets us up for failure because we aren’t looking at the whole picture. We try to explain a macro phenomenon, content going viral, by explaining the micro attributes of our content. When trying to understand complex problems we cannot look at individual actions or attributes, we have to look at the entire system.
THERE’S MORE THAN JUST A MATCH Think of a forest fire. We don’t extensively analyze the properties of a match to understand why there was a fire. We look at the match along with the dryness of the brush, the direction of the wind, the other trees in proximity… we look at the whole network.
DON’T GET ME WRONG, CONTENT STILL MATTERS It is still important that we create groundbreaking content, but if we focus on content alone will we will inevitably fail. The issue is we tend to correlate good content with virality and this is a false correlation. Some may agree that content isn’t that important as long as you pick the right mass influencers. Sadly, this isn’t true either.
In marketing, the definition of anHOW WE TYPICALLY DEFINE INFLUENCERS influencer generally falls in line with Malcolm Gladwell’s definition of connectors in his book The Tipping Point. Gladwell defines connectors as “People in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions”. He goes on to say “their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self- confidence, sociability, and energy.” This theory is false. There tend not to be magical people who can inherently connect a disproportionate amount of people.
Viral, as an adjective, isFIRST, LET’S DEFINE VIRAL something that is caused by a virus. A virus is an infection caused by an agent through a system. By this definition a popular song is a virus. A best selling book is a virus. A fire is a virus. A common cold is a virus.
HOW VIRUSES REALLY WORK We all know how a cold is transmitted. Pam is sick, comes into the office, gets Andrew sick, then Andrew goes home and infects his girlfriend Sue. There are not super contagious people who run around infecting their connections along with their connections connections. So why do we believe that there are super influential people who can virally spread ideas?
MASS INFLUENCERS DO NOT EXIST There are not super star mega influential people in the world. There are people who are more influential than others but not by an exponential margin. The key to spreading information and creating virality lies in understanding the structure of social networks and creating content that will spread freely throughout those networks.
But what about OperaTHE OPRAH DELUSION Winfrey? You know, the talk show host who, at the mere utterance of a product, could incite mass hysteria. Isn’t she exponentially more influential than most? No, no she is not. Take away her television show, her magazine, her twitter account, and her media empire and see how influential she is. When you remove her from her network she is no more influential than you or I.
THE MIDNIGHT RIDE OF… WILLIAM DAWES? Most of us have heard of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. Revere was an American revolutionist who rode through New England alerting minutemen that “The British are Coming”. Chances are, you haven’t heard of William Dawes. Dawes also alerted colonial minutemen in New England, but he took a different route. Was Revere more influential than Dawes? Or was it the fact that they traveled on different networks?
THE MISSING TARGET Typically, when we create content, we research our target and make sure our message reaches them. This assumes that everybody who would consume our content can be influenced by us directly. Influence does not always work this way.
WHO INFLUENCES WHOM? Social networks are comprised of strong and weak ties. Strong Ties – The people you are directly connected to. Weak Ties – These are friends of friends; people who can be reached through other strong ties.
Common conjecture tells usTHE WEAKNESS OF STRONG TIES that if we target our passionate fan base they will help us spread our content to infinity and beyond. This assumption is flawed. Strong ties are usefull for calling people to action, but not for spreading information. Our challenge is that homophilous groups tend to be incestuous, i.e., information tends to stay within these communities. In order for information to transfer from one group to another it is important to activate weak ties.
According to sociologist MarkTHE STRENGTH OF WEAK TIES Granovetter, activating weak ties is imperative for spreading information between groups. Weak ties are the bridges between separate strongly connected groups. In order for information to spread we must create content that can easily move from one group to another through these loose social ties.
THREE DEGREES OF INFLEUNCE Did you know your friends friends friend can make you fat? A study by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found that people up to three degress away from you could affect how happy you are, what you purchase, your political views, and even your body weight. This means that the shirt your wearing, the TV show you watch, even the phone in your hand could have been influenced by somebody you have likely never met.
Your decisions can, on average, influence up to threeTHE CASCADE EFFECT people directly. This may not seem like much, but when put in the context of a network, one persons decision can influence the choice of thousands of people. Not because they are exponentially more influential, but because of the cascade effect.
HYPERDYADIC SPREAD Hyperdyadic spread is the tendency of things to spread from person to person to person. This is what we call “going viral”. The decision of one person to share something could create a cascade effect unwittingly influencing thousands of people to change a behavior or to consume content.
A REVELATION Once we realize that the spread of content isn’t solely attributable to great content and an influencer strategy, it becomes clear that we have to look deeper into what truly causes virality.
THINK NETWORK(LY) We tend to think of societal behaviors in terms of individual people – If we understand the parts, we can understand the whole. This is not necessarily true. People are not individual actors acting on a predictable chain of events. People belong to dynamic, self organizing, emergent, complex networks.
In their simplest forms, socialHOW SOCIAL NETWORKS ARE STRUCTURED networks tend to be made up of many homophilous groups tied together through strong and weak social ties. For example, Brian has a group of friends from school, a group from work, and his family. Brian is the social tie that connects his school and work friends. If a rumor were to start amongst his school friends, the only way it could get to his work friends would be through him. The rumor can reach his work friends through Brian (strong tie) or by proxy (a weak tie).
Viral ideas are contagion thatHOW IDEAS SPREAD THROUGH NETWORKS travel through our social networks. They are spread similarly to viruses. For ideas to spread far they must travel through many groups of friends. These groups of friends tend to have different demographics, psychographics, and geographics.
As most groups areNEW IDEAS FLOWS THROUGH WEAK TIES homophilous, they tend to speak about and share the same information. Typically, it takes somebody from outside the group to bring new information to a group. This is especially evident in a country like North Korea. The lack of weak ties due to dictatorship has lead to a lack of advancement and new ideas. Weak social ties are the key to virality.
MAPPING SOCIAL NETWORK In order to understand our social networks we must map them. Mapping entails figuring out who is connected to us, who they are connected to, who they are connected to, and so on. This will give us a good idea of the structure of our networks and how information will best spread through them.
THE EMBEDDEDNESS OF NODES Embeddedness is the degree in which a person is enmeshed within their social network. People who are more embedded tend to be in the center of their network and have more connections to others within their network. This plays a crucial role in how influential a person is likely to be. The more embedded a person is in their network, the more likely it is that they can spread information.
Through mapping we canHIGHLY EMBEDDED NODES identify the most embedded nodes. These people are our true influencers, but they are not inherently influential. They are influential for who they know and who they don’t know. They are influential because where they are located within the network.
Social networks are enormouslyIT’S NOT THAT EASY complex, dynamic, living entities. People add, remove, and amend links in their social networks everyday. The network we map today could be irrelevant tomorrow. Even if we perfectly mapped the people who are most able to spread our content, it does not mean we have solved the virality equation. We should not make the same mistake we currently make; expecting a simple idea such as “highly embedded nodes” to solve a complex problem like virality.
THE SECRET SAUCE There is no secret sauce. If there was we wouldn’t have jobs. What we can do is create content that activates strong ties to call people to action and weak ties to spread the content through the network. Starting with the people who are most centrally embedded within their social networks is a good start. Anybody who tells you otherwise is lying.
SUMMATION- Good content is important, but it is not possible to plan for.- Focusing on content alone will not lead to virality.- “Mass influencers” do not exist.- Some people are more influential because of where they are located in their social network.- Strong ties tend to call people to action and weak ties tend to transmit information between groups.- The actions of one person can affect the actions people up to three degrees away.- The single decision of one person can cause thousands of people to unwittingly follow suit.- The more central a person is within their social network the more likely they are to be influential.- There is no secret sauce to creating popular content.- The best we can do is create content that can spread through weak and strong ties and seed it through the most centrally located people in their social networks.
PHOTO CREDITS Slide 1: Kheel Center http://www.flickr.com/photos/kheelcenter/5279081507/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 2: http://wallpapersup.net/sunset-hot-air-balloon-evening/Slide 3: Wayne Large http://www.flickr.com/photos/havovubu/7583004344/sizes/l/in/set-72157630603658564/Slide 5: NS Newsflash http://www.flickr.com/photos/62693815@N03/6277209256/lightbox/Slide 6 Digitopoly http://www.digitopoly.org/2011/11/26/betting-on-content-is-king/Slide 8: Austin Even http://www.flickr.com/photos/austinevan/1225274637/sizes/o/in/photostream/Slide 9: Please Request (missing)Slide 12: Pierre Guinoiseau http://www.flickr.com/photos/geekounet/4629143188/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 13: Please Request (missing)Slide 14: Avixyz http://www.flickr.com/photos/avlxyz/188684627/sizes/o/in/photostream/Slide 16: Benson Kua http://www.flickr.com/photos/bensonkua/4944413700/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 17: jez.atkinson http://www.flickr.com/photos/cloppy/5099531956/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 18: Twenty_Questions http://www.flickr.com/photos/twenty_questions/2192450204/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 19: Wayne Large http://www.flickr.com/photos/havovubu/3728604649/sizes/o/in/photostream/Slide 23: Clif1066 http://www.flickr.com/photos/nostri-imago/3137422976/sizes/o/in/photostream/Slide 24: Horia Varina http://www.flickr.com/photos/horiavarlan/4329180541/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 25: Please Request (Missing)Slide 26: Please Request (missing)Slide 27: Nicholas Christakis, James FowlerSlide 28: RFDuck http://www.flickr.com/photos/rfduck/433211875/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 29: TheSeanseter93 http://www.flickr.com/photos/theseanster93/2525458030/Slide 30: Luke Peterson http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukepeterson/7179857175/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 32: Didbygraham http://www.flickr.com/photos/didbygraham/334447437/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 33: Zigazou76 http://www.flickr.com/photos/zigazou76/5809831758/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 34: Yuliya Libkina http://www.flickr.com/photos/juliannehide/1117286012/sizes/o/in/photostream/Sldie 35: kyz http://www.flickr.com/photos/kyz/2619488564/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 36: Tristam Sparks http://www.flickr.com/photos/friendly-fire/1303196553/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 37: Marc_Smith http://www.flickr.com/photos/marc_smith/6584205737/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 38: josullivan.59 http://www.flickr.com/photos/97373666@N00/3264396897/sizes/l/in/photostream/Slide 39: Wayne Large http://www.flickr.com/photos/havovubu/4073705024/sizes/o/in/set-72157625812552599/Slide 40: Wayne Large http://www.flickr.com/photos/havovubu/3734804839/sizes/l/in/set-72157621562337479/Slide 41: Anna Tesar http://www.flickr.com/photos/spanner/3025145676/sizes/o/in/photostream/