Marketing guru goes ‘viral’

Videos of people pouring buckets of ice cold water over their heads went “viral” this summer. The campaign was a tremendous success for the ALS Association, raising awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a motor neuron disease, and driving significant donations to the association. 

But what made the campaign so successful and prompted people to share the videos and take up the challenge? Marketing professionals at the second annual Cayman Islands Marketing Professionals Association conference on Wednesday heard about the various elements needed to make ideas spread quickly and the psychological underpinnings that drive people to share stories and content online. 

“First of all, going viral is a result; it’s not a strategy,” digital marketing consultant Dave Haber told the audience at the Westin resort. 

One needs to understand the user experience in the various stages of seeing content, clicking on it, the desire to share it, and sharing it, he explained. 

“Basically, each of the four points in the viral experience is a lever. It is an opportunity for us to optimize the ability for our idea or content to spread,” he said. 

The next question is why certain content encourages people to share it. 

Greek philosopher Aristotle found more than 2,000 years ago that to spread his ideas, he had to appeal to an audience either ethically, emotionally or logically to establish a connection. In today’s digitalized world, these principles still apply but have evolved more, said Mr. Haber. 

Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger’s book “Contagious,” for example, outlines six elements that can be used to design messages, advertisements or other information that people will share. 

In this framework, social currency is one of the main motivators for sharing any information, from a good restaurant or reliable car mechanic to the latest grumpy cat picture. “When I give you a piece of information or knowledge that you previously did not have, I earn social capital with you,” Mr. Haber said. 

To go viral, content needs to have practical value or create strong emotions. If it includes triggers, everyday reminders of an item or idea, and is designed to be highly visible, such as Coca Cola’s “personalized” first-name bottles, the product will spread more quickly. And embedding a product or an idea into storytelling will enhance its effect and wider appeal. 

The top 20 viral videos in 2013 all satisfied at least three of the six characteristics, Mr. Haber said. When designing content, those can be used as a basic checklist. 

On a more technical level, online publisher Upworthy experimented with content to determine what stimulates curiosity and teases users – just enough without giving away too much information – to click on a link and share it to drive traffic to their website.  

Upworthy’s editorial process famously includes writing 25 different headlines for the same content to find the one that works best, as well as snappy rules like “don’t be shrill,” “don’t form an opinion for the end user, let them do that,” “make sure your mom would approve,” and “be clever but not too clever.” 

Through testing, Upworthy has come up with some best practice principles. It is one of the best companies at optimizing Web content, said Mr. Haber, and understanding where content is going to be shared, what the different social platforms are and how to frame that content. 


Digital marketing consultant Dave Haber addresses the Cayman Islands Marketing Professionals Asscoiation’s conference.

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