Why “viral thinking” is important

by Kristofer Mencák on November 17, 2010

Not all companies can build their business on viral successes like the ones BlendTec has experienced with Will It Blend. Believing you can create something viral is pretty optimistic. However, I do believe there are tools you can use to make it more possible. I do think you can optimize for it, and that’s why I write posts like 12 viral content triggers, Some help with the viral loop and Network effects, game mechanics and stickiness.

But, something that might be even more important is how to use this thinking in the shift that is taking place today, where marketers have to fight for attention in a fragmented media landscape, on the user’s terms. Optimizing for spread becomes more and more important. I agree to what Niclas Strand writes in All marknadskommunikation är viral (in Swedish). Today, whether the goal is to create something viral or not, marketers need to understand a new way to work – and that is to participate and create content that is worthy of conversations. Content needs to involve and engage the consumers. And it must be easy to pass it on.

I believe “viral thinking” is important for any marketing efforts, in an online world as well as offline, through word of mouth. Creating and participating in conversations is fundamental for brands and businesses today. And that is why we need to optimize campaigns and use the same tools we use when trying to create something viral.

To illustrate why, let’s look at some numbers:

Say you manage to reach 100 000 people with a campaign that no one passes on.

What happens if the content actually makes people pass it on? Say someone who receives it passes it on to, on average 0.25 new people – that is, a basic reproductive number of 0.25. If this spread goes on, we multiply the previous number of people in the loop by the basic reproductive number, like so:

100 000 (first paid 100 000 people reached)
100 000 * 0.25 = 25 000
25 000 * 0.25 = 6 500
6 500 * 0.25 = 1 563
1563 * 0.25 = 391
391 * 0.25 = 98
98 * 0.25 = 24
24 * 0.25 = 6
6 * 0.25 = 1.5

As you can see, with every loop, the returns are decreasing. Adding it all up, we end up at 133 333 – a nice increase in effect by 33.3 %!

Performing the same calculation with a basic reproductive number of 0.5, with our example we would reach 200 000 – an extra 100 000. We get an increase in effect by 100 % – doubling the value of our money spent!

And, with a basic reproductive number of 0.75, we reach out to 400 000 people – an increase in effect by 300 %!

Yes, these numbers are hypothetical in the sense that there will be some saturation as the loop goes on.

And as Seth Godin writes:

The more people you reach the more likely it is that you’re reaching the wrong people.

So, there will be some saturation, you will reach some people who might not be interested (although I could argue that the ones who receive it from a friend might be even better targets), and it is not viral. But, looking at these numbers, the money is still much better spent!.That is why it is important to think about what can be done to incentivize people to pass the content on and make it really easy to do so, even if the result is not truly viral.

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