Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Why You Aren't Going Viral

Added on by Tom Webster.

PsyHere's a simple formula to "go viral":

1. Take a balloon to space and jump out of it

2. Yeah, that's all I got.

I was delighted recently to be asked to participate in the latest Argyle Social webinar on virility virality with Eric Boggs and Jay Baer. I knew Eric would come loaded with some great new data on how content spreads (he did) and that he and Jay would bring the same repartee and intellect they bring each week to their excellent SocialPros podcast (they did.) I just tried not to screw it up. :)

From my perspective, as someone with a couple of decades researching social, new AND broadcast media, the concept of "virality" is a bit of a canard. Let's face it--when you are hoping that your content goes viral, what you are really doing is hoping for reach, without paying for it. And, you are hoping, which is not really a strategy.

For every PSY, there are a million or so NOT-PSYs, i.e., you and me. In fact, Argyle Social ran some numbers to determine the chance that a given piece of content would break out of its normal reach stats positively (i.e., go "viral") and they came up with a .0006% probability. Or, put another way, list every single video you can think of that went viral. Now, multiply that number by 100 (I'm generously assuming you've missed some.) The answer is less than the number of videos uploaded to YouTube in the time it took you to read this post. I'll put that into perspective for you: go play the lottery.

I would humbly submit that given my initial thesis--what you are really aiming for is "reach"--you need to think like a media buyer, and not like a viral video producer. I recently saw a keynote from Michael Parker, the VP of Corporate Marketing for Symantec, where he discussed how they were able to make some of their recent videos go viral with their target market (IT professionals). The answer? They bought a lot of ads to promote their videos. That's it. The title of his keynote, btw, was "The Myth of Viral Video," which I think sums up his point pretty succinctly.

I am sure the comments here are going to be flooded by exceptions, anecdotes and some of your own success stories. I celebrate those with you. But ask yourself this: can you do it again? The same way? Is it a repeatable process? Symantec's process is--I've seen the data--because they treat "virality" honestly: it's reach, pure and simple, and you plot reach against a budget, not hope.

Here's the good news, however--once you admit to yourself that you are playing the reach game, then you have 50 years of media research at your fingertips. The "viral" game becomes a simple exercise in reach, frequency, impressions and clicks, in a model that has worked for longer than I've been alive. As long as the content you are promoting is designed to draw prospects deeper into the funnel (downloading a white paper, signing up for a demo, or some other exercise that signals deeper engagement) then employing reach-based advertising to draw attention to that content is just part of the formula. If that's not the case, then you need to be clear about your content strategy for employing a "viral" video in the first place.

Or you could just hire Snoop.