May 4, 2013How to “Make it go viral”

It seems like every day someone asks me to make something to viral. How do you make something go viral? Well, as a copywriter, you can’t. Words simply aren’t enough to set the world on fire. Especially not when you’re writing about something duller than watching paint dry.

Cat videos go viral. Your brochureware YouTube clips about your fantastic range of DIY products will not. And there’s no script and no loglines in the world that will change this fact. But still you try.

Of course, copywriters don’t just write words. We concept, too. As a conceptual copywriter, I get called upon to come up with ideas and strategies that support campaigns. In other words, I get called in to come up with a “brilliant” idea to make your less-than-exciting content go viral.

And I still can’t do it. Because ultimately it’s the content, not the supporting campaign, that makes content go viral.

To make content go viral, you have two options.

Either —

a) Pay a copywriter / art director / creative team to come up with a “brilliant” campaign that ultimately boils down to the following mechanic: herd people into sharing / tweeting / talking about your content with a whopping incentive to do so (e.g. a big star prize) or,

b) Produce good content in the first place that people will want to share without an incentive.

The path to “A” is fraught with difficulties. For starters, you’re relying on incentivising people to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

“Share our brochureware about fitted kitchens to receive £1000 of DIY gift vouchers!!” Great. But as @NowJustAdam so nimbly pointed out, people don’t like sharing competitions because the more people who enter the competition, the lower their chances of winning.

So you have to force them to do it. Share _to_ win. And even while they’re sharing, they’re silently hoping your viral falls flat on its face.

So not only are you forcing people to share content they wouldn’t ordinarily share — essentially spamming their friends’ Facebook or Twitter feeds, you are also forcing them to go against their natural instincts.

Of course, there are genuinely inspired and brilliant campaigns that do not use this mechanic. Most of them revolve around giving the customer an adequate value exchange.

I’d be lying if I said I was the first person to use the “Pay with a tweet” mechanism to promote something. But it works, when the value is sufficiently high. Share this and _you will_ receive something useful (in my case, a warmly regarded eBook)… there are few worse weasel words than “share for your chance to win…”

What chance? Fat chance.

You see, if you don’t offer your customers an adequate value exchange, they won’t share your content. Ever go to the fairground and have a go on a hook-a-duck stall or a “win a goldfish” stall? Know what they promised?

A prize every time.

Everyone’s a winner.

Know who the biggest winner is? The guy who’s running the stall. Why? Because it costs you £1 to enter, but only 50p for every prize.

The thing is, you’re doing something with a low barrier to entry, it’s a bit of quick fun, and there’s a guaranteed prize at the end of it. So the value exchange to you is adequate, even though it’d be cheaper to just walk into a pet store and buy the damn goldfish.

The trouble with using this mechanic online is that you can’t really charge for entry so to make everyone a winner, you either have to make a loss or lower the prize. Say, 10% off to everyone who shares. It’s adequate. But it’s only adequate.

Plan B, then, producing good content that people just want to share — because it’s good — still looks like a winner. And a winner every time, at that.

So how do you make good content that people want to share?

Firstly, make sure it isn’t about yourself. If it’s marketing, throw it out. If people even get a whiff of the thought that they’re doing your advertising for you, they’ll not share it. Little boys and girls grow up wanting to be train drivers and doctors. Unless they’re David Byrne, they don’t grow up wanting to be billboards.

Yesterday’s big viral, Partridge Gets Lucky, is a classic example of how to make great content that goes viral very quickly.

According to the tweet button on the website, I was the thirteenth person to tweet that link. Why did I tweet it? Because it was hilarious. And it wasn’t trying to sell me something. When I checked back later that day it had been tweeted by 2500 people and liked 13,000 times.

Partridge Gets Lucky had all the ingredients for a successful viral —
  • No overt marketing
  • Incredibly simple idea (10 second loop)
  • Tied to current events (new Daft Punk track)
  • “Cult” status (Alan Partridge – the legend!)
  • Makes people laugh (who wouldn’t want to make their friends laugh?)
  • Doesn’t force you to share (if you’re forcing me, it’s because your meme sucks – memes should never be forced)

When it comes to viral marketing, it’s all about producing the right content.

Rarely, a marketer will create an idea for a mechanic that offers a reasonable value exchange. A tweet for a book. Or a Facebook post for a 1-in-1000 chance of winning a £10,000 prize (hint: a 1 in 100,000 chance of winning a £1000 prie will not encourage me to pollute my friends’ Facebook feeds).

But for the most part, people are resilient to attempts to _force_ an idea to go viral. However big the prize.

Which is why when it comes to viral marketing, much more so than blogging, that old adage holds true: content comes first.

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