Optimizing for viral spread

When talking about viral marketing, there is no question about it – content is king. To make videos, games or applications go truly viral, there is no substitute for great content.

However, even if you can have a pretty good idea, you can never know for sure how the content will be received by the audience. So, that’s one reason to do everything possible to optimize the campaign for viral spread. Besides this, there are two more reasons why you should try to optimize your campaign material, no matter what the quality of the content:

  1. There is just too much other content out there to compete with, so there is a risk even good content will not be seen enough by the right people to make it go viral.
  2. Once content has gotten attention, having it optimized maximizes spread and ROI.

Four questions
To maximize the possibilities for a campaign to go viral, I believe there are four important questions to ask yourself, evaluate the campaign and direct further actions and improvements. All questions are from the users perspective:

  1. Why pay attention?
  2. Why stay engaged?
  3. Why act/interact?
  4. Why not act/interact?

Finally, we also have to deal with the fact that there almost always are multiple audiences to a viral campaign. And, you may or may not want to appeal to them all.

Let’s go through each of the questions.

Question 1: Why pay attention?
Attention is the currency of the new media landscape, and to get rewarded with attention, you have to give something in return. That should be your content. But, millions of pieces of content are produced every day and users are only scanning it to decide what to pay attention to. To get their attention, you have to stand out among all other content when users are scanning. The “indicators of good content” have to be right. Otherwise you won’t get attention. Now, here are some bad and some good news – you can’t control all indicators of good content, but you control some of them. What you can’t control is often user-generated, like for example:

  • Ratings
  • Conversations
  • Toplists
  • Most viewed

On the positive side, to a certain extent, you can control:

  • Features
  • Titles
  • Descriptions
  • Images
  • Tags

Once content is out there, it might get better or worse features, it might get new titles and new images. But, when launching the campaign, these should all be optimized.

Features are something you usually have to buy, just like an ad. You can get features without paying, but then it is due to the content itself, when it’s being awarded video of the day or something similar. Paid features are the ones you can control. As always, more exposure, like for example through a feature, the more initial attention you will get, and this will increase possibilities of interaction with your content. Over time, more interaction equals greater possibility to get the content to spread.

The titles or seeding angles of a video or a game is also something that users scan to get an idea of what is hiding behind it. And, titles can sometimes be almost as important as the content itself. Titles, viral hooks or seeding angles should be appealing, connect to the content, be simple and memorable. Preferably, it should be intuitive, so that if you think of the content, and make a search on the words that come up in your mind, you should find the content. This makes it easy to find, to show to friends, and increases possibilities to be passed on.

While not as important as to create a catchy title, the description gives you yet another possibility to make it easy to find the content through search, and recognize it quickly when found. Descriptions should be accurate and filled with keywords you wish to rank high on.

Images or thumbnails are usually scanned even before titles, and therefore, it is extremely important to optimize them to make it as appealing as possible to engage with the content. Images should be optimized in two ways:

  • The first image, the thumbnail, should be optimized to get the user to want to engage with the content.
  • The last frame, in for example a video, is often freezed on video sites, and should be optimized to increase potential of pass along.

Make it as appealing as possible, to first get the user to engage, and then at the end to keep the user thinking positively about the content. Using a black screen in the beginning and/or end of a video is the worst you can do. Sometimes video sites auto generate the thumbnail from the first frame and then you get a black thumbnail. Who wants to click on that?

Tags are also essential in making videos accessible through searches and increase exposure of the content. Tag the content with all relevant words that relate to the campaign material. If you have more than one video for example, tag them with the same words, as long as they are applicable to the video. This will increase potential for additional views of the content, as videos with similar tags will appear in “related videos” on most video sites.

Question 2: Why stay engaged?
With limited time, and the fight for attention, once the user choses to interact with content, you have to give something in return. Normally, a user decides if they will keep engaging with the content within 10 seconds. So, this is the time-frame you have to use as best as you can. Something interesting must happen, something that makes the user stay engaged. In tv-series and other fiction, a “cliffhanger” is often used to keep viewers interested in the next episode.

The same concept can be used in online content, to keep the users engaged. Build “cliffhangers” into the content right from the start. You can even use cliffhangers in the title.

For online games, long load times is a no-no. For videos, the first 10 seconds are essential. Give the users a first payment for investing their attention and time. In general, the shorter the content, the easier it is to keep the users engaged until the call to action. Unless they stay engaged to the end, they have no reason at all to pass it along. Shorter content is usually better.

Usability is also essential. If a user doesn’t understand how to engage with the content, they will stop trying.

Question 3: Why act/interact?
For content to be passed on, there has to be an expected positive experience for the receiver. This means content should be:

  • Funny,
  • Spectactular,
  • Provocative, (but not too much)
  • Unexpected,
  • Relevant,
  • Taboo (but not too much)
  • Highly informative,
  • Secret (but not too much)
  • Controversial
  • True? (is it true?)
  • New

The one question to ask here is: If I received this clip, would I want pass it on, and if so, why? If you can’t come up with some clear reasons why a user should want to pass it on, they probably won’t either. If someone has deemed the experience worthwhile, there is a chance that they might want to share it. Being  first with the latest creates respect among peers, especially if the content is really good. Passing on information is part of what ties us together with our friends and family, and good content makes the cut. Someone passing good content to their friends will gain in esteem, which is the ultimate reason for viral spread.

But, this will only take place it it is reasonably easy to do so. Which takes us to question number four.

Question 4: Why not act/interact?
The reasons for not interacting with content can be many. Top of the list is of course when there is no real incentive to pass it on – basically, the content isn’t interesting enough and the expected value to the receiver isn’t high enough. We already covered that.

But, even if content is good, there are still many reasons why you might chose to not pass it along. These have to be addressed to maximize the possibilities that a campaign goes viral:

  • Is it too commercial relative to the quality of the content? Specifically, think of:
    • logos,
    • urls,
    • the content itself.
  • Is there too high an effort to pass it on?
    • Long urls that break
    • Deep-links not possible
  • Is there a non user-friendly process?
  • Is it too hard to understand?
  • Is too much information required to pass it on? Generally, personal info, like:
    • Name
    • Year of birth
    • Phone number
    • City of residence
    • Zip codes
  • Are all options to pass it on available and easily accessible?
    • Embed
    • Post to Facebook, twitter etc.
    • Link
    • Download
    • Send to friend

In general, is the effort or investment needed to pass it on bigger than the pay-off? If so, the material has to be re-worked in terms of quality of content, ease of spread, or possibly both.

Multiple audiences
Something to really think about when it comes to launching campaigns on the Internet is that they almost always have multiple audiences. There is of course the target audience of the campaign, often a regular user, who passes good content on. But, there are also the webmasters, bloggers and other power users that can act as “gatekeepers” to the content, often boosting the number of views if they accept the content. These work as springboards and are extremely important to create a successful campaign. Of course, they have to be taken into account when creating campaign material. Some issues they think about are:

The content:

  • Quality of the content.
  • Technical set-up, like:
    • Plug-ins needed?
    • Software upgrades needed?
    • Java needed?
  • Size of game/video in pixels
    • 400-500 pixels maximum width – preferably sizeable
  • Difficult to embed games on site?
    • Embed code available?

The user:

  • Load times – too long?
  • Language of content – does he/she understand?

In general, go for the smallest denominator. The less that is required, the better. Try to make the material flexible, easy to integrate on sites and easy to spread. If a webmaster doesn’t understand the content, either because it is not good enough, it’s too complicated to use or integrate, or language is too complicated, you will loose out on a lot of potential users.

(Yes, this is actually a two year old post I made on my old blog, slightly updated to be more accurate today. Things change fast on the Internet!)

Kristofer Mencák has a M.Sc. in Business Administration from Stockholm School of Economics. He is a consultant, author and lecturer on social media, viral marketing and word of mouth. He has also recently been travelling the world teaching the dance kizomba.

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