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6 min read

The viral puzzle: science, success & ROI

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Viral campaigns are the Holy Grail of content marketing. It seems to be assumed pretty much anywhere you look that viral content will be a huge boost for your brand’s success.

Is it that simple? I want to have a look at the science behind viral campaigns and the implications that it has for business to see whether or not marketers should be spending time and money hunting for the next viral hit.

What makes us share content online?

In a 2012 study, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, both professors at the University of Pennsylvania, investigated common features in the most shared New York Times blog posts over a three month period.

Their research found that the most successful posts were those that caused strong psychological arousal in readers. On the positive side, these were posts that inspired awe, and on the negative side, posts that brought on anxiety and anger.

Their findings are routed in known evolutionary processes, as explained by biopsychologist Nigel Barber. On the one hand, humans approach sources of pleasure to avoid negative emotions, and sharing that source of pleasure with friends can help strengthen social cohesion.

On the other hand, serious threats are highly prioritised by humans as a survival mechanism, which is why the news is dominated by stories of crime, war, and terror. Unsurprisingly, Berger & Milkman found a causal link between emotion and transmission: the more emotion someone felt in reading a post, the more likely they were to share it.

Humans are social creatures. To keep our group strong, we want to enjoy positive things with them, and warn them of negative things. There’s nothing mysterious in that.

Another finding from the study was that shareable content meets either informational or practical needs that its readers have. If your content can answer a reader’s burning question, or help them to solve a practical problem, like how to make the world’s best lasagne, it’s likely to gain more traction.

Understanding the fundamentals of shareable content is essential for marketers looking to create it. People don’t just share any old junk that gets put out. As digital-media guru Emerson Spartz puts it: ‘The more incentive you give people to share, the more likely they are to share’.

But creating content like this is tough, and the hard truth is that most companies aren’t publishing content on the level of the New York Times. Talking about many industries, products and services often doesn’t inspire feelings of awe, anger, or fear. In order to go viral, marketers often need to go off their company’s beaten path and invest in coming up with something new. So is it worth it?

Do viral campaigns work?

There’s no easy answer to this question. If there was, either nobody would be doing viral campaigns or everyone would be. Marketers need to go deeper and ask two major questions when considering a viral campaign:

  • Will my campaign go viral?
  • If it does, will it give me any lasting benefits?

Will my campaign go viral

There are plenty of sites telling you how to construct a viral campaign, many of them ostensibly based on the science that I’ve already talked about. Those same sites will probably list a load of case studies that tell you how one piece of content got hundreds of thousands of views and web traffic increased and they got thousands of social shares etc. That can happen, but it’s not a guarantee.

Regardless of the science behind them, there are no guarantees with viral campaigns. You could produce the most fantastic content and it could bomb, and you could post a random picture and have it take off – remember the dress?

There are undoubtedly ways to make a campaign more likely to go viral, but if the most likely things always happened then Leicester wouldn’t have won the Premiership last year.

If it does, will it give me any lasting benefits?

In a recent in-depth article digital marketing speaker Tomas Vaitulevicius discussed several viral case studies. Vaitulevicius looked at four different examples of companies that had ‘big win’ campaigns, analysing their traffic before, during, and after the viral content, as well as looking at which keywords the viral content helped them to rank for.

His conclusion was that the viral campaigns had very little benefit for their creators, with most of the traffic dying down shortly after the viral surge, and ranking increases only occurring in search terms that related to the content, but not the business’s products.

For some of the case studies mentioned, they could possibly still be considered successful if their goal was to get their name out to lots of people. However, Vaitulevicius revealed that for one that he worked on, the goal was to raise DA (domain authority) through acquiring backlinks, and they fell well short of their goal.

The real problem seems to be that a lot of viral content doesn’t really relate to the creator’s products or services, which means they fail to turn links and exposure into meaningful traffic and conversions.

Taking viral campaigns off their pedestal

We’re better served considering viral campaigns to be one tool among many in the digital marketer’s toolbox, rather than some kind of Holy Grail. Instead of aiming for 200k social shares, we need to be aiming for a good ROI.

Those two targets aren’t mutually exclusive – 200k shares could help you achieve a good ROI – but ROI, not shares, has to be the priority. It’s better to put your company in front of 100 people who will go and buy your products than 200,000 people who’ll do nothing and forget about you.

If you pursue a viral campaign that has little relevance to your business instead of a content campaign that will get you featured on all of the sites that your audience visits, don’t be surprised if you see a lower return than you wanted.

The ideal situation is that good content planning and viral campaigns go hand in hand. If you’re being proactive in looking for opportunities to provide unique, excellent content in your industry – along the lines of Moz’s 10x content – you might hit the goldmine of viral coverage in front of relevant audiences.

I’m not some marketing genie promising that if you do X, Y will happen, but there are reasons that digital giants like Moz talk so much about quality content. If you create really high quality campaigns that are relevant to your industry, you are putting yourself on a more sustainable, lucrative path than if you spend your meetings looking for the next Buzzfeed-esque hit.

All of us marketers would love to see a bit of content that we create go big, and there is some worth in considering the science that I’ve mentioned and looking at how to make content more appealing and shareable. However, if you want to turn traffic into conversions, I would be wary of pursuing emotive content over something that is really valuable to your audience. If you’re not turning traffic into conversions, then you’re probably just throwing away money.

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If you want to find out more about what it takes to make a successful campaign, check out Rebecca’s post on PR marketing wins.