So you want to go viral? I’m here to help

This blog has been a long time coming. Since I last posted, I went to a wedding, spent a week in Noosa, inspected a forest in which to build a house, got roped into doing some group assignment work I really didn’t want to do, checked my partner’s visa status for the 1000th time and spilt tomato-covered chickpeas all over my little couch. It is now Sunday evening and I am drinking wine.

What I’m trying to convey here is that, life is an unpredictable mixed bag, full of all sorts of different stimuli that, good and bad, can often get in the way of what we really want to be doing (such as writing this blog). The interesting thing about viral marketing is that it manages to transcend the everyday and truly connect with the zeitgeist, if only for a moment. How does it do this, you ask? Well, like everything of such magnitude, it’s pretty complex.

There are three main schools of thought on how marketing messages ‘go viral’ or how ideas spread, which have been developed by Jonah Berger, Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin. Berger argues that it is the message that is the key centrepoint when it comes to spreading an idea virally, while Gladwell and Godin believe that ideas spread because of the influence of either the network or an individual’s ability to be remarkable. I know no one likes a fence sitter, but I am inclined to believe they all hold value in explaining how sometimes, ideas simply explode.


STEPPS framework, Jonah Berger

Take Fortnite for instance, the biggest online zombie free-for-all of 2018 that was only released a year ago. It just about ticks all of the boxes of Berger’s STEPPS framework – it enables social currency (other players can see gear and skills, but also, if you’re playing Fortnite, you must be ‘in the know’); it is often triggered by others (I don’t even play Fortnite and yet am continually reminded by YouTubers that everyone else is); it encourages emotional engagement from players (your home is being attacked by zombies and you have to band together and build forts!); it is absolutely public (the game is free to play on PC, Mac, Playstation 4 and Xbox One as well as on IOS 11 and Android); and, the stories surrounding the game are, in a word, ‘excellent’. Perhaps the only negative is that the game doesn’t hold much practical value, although fans may disagree with me. Just about anyone who is anyone in the online gaming community is playing this game, and while this may have began with the trailer and zeitgeist-channelling female voiceover, word of mouth, personal recommendations and accessibility have spread it like wildfire.

I can tell what you’re thinking. This is easy, Hannah. We have all of Jonah Berger’s secrets and we could make our message go viral tomorrow. But truthfully, you can’t, at least not without a little luck, or magical precision timing or simply the right intuitive ‘feel’ for the market. Because for every Fortnite that is released, there are numerous similar games that just missed the mark.

At times like these, I often think back to an interview I read with Wes Anderson. He was wondering why his film, The Darjeeling Limited did not receive the same accolades or audience reception as Slumdog Millionaire which was released a little over a year later, despite him thinking that they weren’t terribly dissimilar. Admittedly both films are set in India, but from an objective standpoint, that’s where their similarities end. In a way, Wes Anderson is too niche to ever be mainstream enough to be viral, and to be viral, one needs to be accessible and to stimulate arousal (that is, intense emotions).

Now, it’s possible that Wes Anderson just missed the timing, and that Danny Boyle saw The Kite Runner in 2007 and realised audiences love emotional tearjerkers of struggling children, destiny and true love, but it does make you wonder whether there is more to it than just a six-step framework. Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’ explains this quite well. While I have only just started reading his book, one of this main points is that 80 percent of the network that spreads ideas is 20 percent of the people, and that viral success depends on whether those ‘contagious’ 20 percent are involved, as they are the connectors, the mavens and the salespeople. Additionally, he asserts that to start an epidemic it needs to be more than contagious, it needs to have a certain stickiness to ensure it remains in the minds of consumers.

A prime example of stickiness (and perhaps one of my favourite advertisements) would be the 2010 Old Spice commercial which set the internet on fire. I still remember this vividly 8 years later, even though at the time, being an Australian female teen, I had not even heard of Old Spice. Between the visual transitions, constant eye contact and highly engaging dialogue, not only is it impossible to look away, but became infinitely quotable and addictively shareable. If that isn’t sticky, I don’t know what is.

Of course, this example also relates to Seth Godin’s belief that remark-ability is what drives messages to go viral. His TED Talk (linked in my third paragraph) uses a purple cow as an example – which, in similarity to Old Spice’s ‘the tickets are now diamonds’ and ‘I’m on a horse’ is entirely odd and really very remarkable when compared with the kind of mundane imagery we are exposed to every day. So instead of tuning out the message, we stop and listen. When we do not only stop and listen, but share and encourage others to see it as well, it becomes viral. To build on that, I’m going to leave you with an Australian example.

Dumb ways to die was released when I was studying design at Monash University in 2012. I distinctly remember discussing the formula and techniques they used in order to make the video go viral with my lecturer Ned Culic who was particularly excited by it. Yes, you read that right – to go viral was built into the strategy, it wasn’t an accident. The foundation was created in order to allow it to happen (it was highly accessible, sticky, intelligent, innovative, and animated with a trendy flat style), but it still required the public to accept it, share it and engage with it positively. While I wasn’t entirely ‘in the know’, I imagine they would have sourced connectors, mavens and salespeople to assist in spreading the disease.

So, what do you think? Are you on team Jonah Berger, Malcolm Gladwell or Seth Godin? Or are you more of a moderate like I am, believing that they all hold insight into how ideas spread? Let me know your thoughts in the comments on the sidebar.

10 thoughts on “So you want to go viral? I’m here to help”

  1. Colour me intrigued! Such an exciting read Hannah. I must agree I am a lot like you in the sense that a combination of all their ideas, separate or together, will achieve the goal of spreading a message.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Anika! Yes, it’s interesting how there are so many different but similar thoughts and frameworks on “how to”, and yet it can also be completely random like a lot of memes. Definitely a fascinating topic.


  2. Great blog Hannah! I do see the importance and thought behind each framework but similarly to you I fail to see how viral trends can be looked at purely through the use of theory. There are simply so many uncontrolled variables that need to fall into place in order for something to go viral. Like you mentioned for every viral trend there are so many similar trends that go unnoticed. Success on social media relies on more than just a theory, it takes practice, failure, passion and a lot of luck.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Luke! Thank you for your insightful comment. It’s so wonderful to be able to share our thoughts on different aspects of digital marketing in this way. I look forward to reading your blog post as well.


  3. Great post, Hannah! I love how you’ve pulled in a lot of examples to back each theory. Naturally I think the frameworks for viral content are very valid, but then occasionally you’ll get something completely random go viral and feels like all that’s thrown out the window. So I agree that luck also plays into it – some hit the jackpot with no marketing or framework background at all and some are very calculated. The randomness of it all is a bit unsettling!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, perhaps viral marketing is a reflection of life in a way. Some people live to 90 and smoke a packet of cigarettes every day, but they’re in the minority (the exception and not the rule). I haven’t analysed that many viral messages, but I imagine most of them were at least strategically calculated to reach a wide audience.


    1. Thank you Angie! Sorry for the slow reply. I really appreciate your feedback. Fortnite is huge at the moment, so I thought it would make a good example. I look forward to reading your next blog entry and I’ll be sure to leave you a comment!


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