April 13, 2024

Viral marketing: An expert checklist for creating branded content that spreads


One of the puzzling things about the spread of viral content is its unpredictability.

A viral phenomenon explodes suddenly from nowhere and has everybody buzzing. Given its potential for massive reach at a fraction of the cost of traditional media, it’s not surprising marketers are looking for ways to “create” online buzz of their own.

Can you make the unpredictable happen with viral marketing?

Well, maybe. From studying successful viral events, we can identify controllable elements you can orchestrate to put the odds in your favor. Knowing the motivations people have for sharing content is the starting point to achieving large-scale word-of-mouth, or even a viral marketing phenomenon.

Why people share content

A much-cited study by Customer Insight Group and Latitude Research gives insights into the intent for online sharing. It identified the five most common motivations for sharing content:

  1. To inform or entertain others. By definition, we share in order to edify others we are connected to. This takes the form of interesting news, information or humorous ideas that elicit shock or awe.
  2. To define our identity. What we share with others reflects our self-image. We want to establish our creativity, intelligence, savvy, personal magnetism or other characteristics that give a sense of who we are or aspire to be.
  3. To develop relationships. We share to show empathy for others and that we are thinking about them.
  4. To connect with others. We share to engage or start a conversation, to get feedback and be valued by others.
  5. To advocate for a cause. We share to evangelize for a cause or brand we believe in that makes us feel part of something bigger.

Ultimately content sharing is driven by the desire to shape or maintain relationships with other people. For your content to get shared, it has to serve that purpose.

This video analyzes examples of effective viral sharing events and why they work.

What makes content go viral

Viral sharing of content follows a similar path as the spread of a flu virus. This model presented by Jamie Grenney, VP of Social Media for Salesforce.com breaks down the common elements:

  • Frequency – Who is talking about it. How much influence the thought leaders bring.
  • Proximity – How many in their network they are sharing with.
  • Potency – How potent the message is. How much emotion or interest it sparks.
  • Incubation – How long after someone shares before it is actually viewed.

Each of these variables can be planned and optimized to sow the seeds for viral content sharing. How?

A viral marketing success formula

In his ebook The New Rules of Viral Marketing: How word-of-mouse spreads your ideas for free, David Meerman Scott says, “Viral marketing success comes from self-publishing Web content that people want to share. It’s not about gimmicks. It’s not about paying an agency to interrupt others. It’s about harnessing word-of-mouse, the most empowering form of marketing there is.”

The “word-of-mouse” success formula is a combination of three things:

  • Videos, images
  • Ebooks, white papers
  • News, articles, blog posts
  • Memes, infographics
  • Slide shows
  • Music, podcasts
  • Thought leaders
  • Super-advocates

Your 5-step viral marketing checklist

Taking all these factors into consideration, here are five tips for you to trigger content sharing and reach critical mass on the Social Web:

1. Appeal to the consumers’ motivation to connect with others – not just your brand.
2. Use humor that people identify with. They like to laugh and make others laugh.
3. Convey a sense of urgency – make it newsy, topical, juicy
4. Establish trust – a share is a recommendation; your content must be authentic and useful
5. Keep it simple and easy to share …

  • Short video clips, preferably two minutes
  • Avoid heavy branding or self-promoting messages
  • Optimize social sharing options
  • Write compelling headlines and descriptions
  • Be found by putting your content in front of your thought leaders

Bonus tip!

Don’t forget your marketing reason for making viral content. Viral marketing, as Seth Godin defines it, is an idea that spreads, and while it is spreading helps you to market your business or cause. Without a marketing benefit it is only a viral event.

Some marketers can lose sight of this in their zeal to make something go viral. As Godin says, “Being viral isn’t the hard part. The hard part is making that viral element actually produce something of value, not just entertainment for the client or your boss.”

Need some help with a content marketing strategy that builds awareness for your brand and gets more customers? Let’s talk! Message me to set up a no-obligation 30-minute phone consultation.

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