What do Ninja Turtles, Facebook, Hush Puppies and Pokémon all have in common?

The answer reveals the secrets to creating a viral marketing machine.

Back when I worked on the Hawaiian Punch business for P&G, we spent a fair amount of time analyzing how “fads” became popular with kids. We tried to understand what ignited meteoric “viral” success. We learned some ingredients of viral campaigns –  ease of acquisition, transmission and novelty –  but we never really cracked the code of how to predictably recreate a viral marketing engine.

For the last few years, there have been a host of books presenting research on how to create a viral marketing engine. These texts add insight into the dynamics of viral marketing, but they fail to define how to execute viral marketing well. How, for instance, do you realistically and reliably identify influencers or content creators or mavens?

Then, just as these concepts were making their way into marketing models, newer work by Duncan Watts seems to suggest that many previous models are not, scientifically speaking, valid. He argues that influencers are not all that influential after all. For something to go viral, he believes, is a function of among other things – “right time and right place,” he says.

How then can marketers effectively utilize this seemingly arbitrary dynamic? While researchers like Watts are still experimenting with new models, I’ll offer my own. My model lacks any published scientific study, but it is a theory grounded in understanding that breakthroughs happen when we blend science with human nature. So here goes.

When we think about wildly popular trends, from Pokémon to Facebook, they have a few things in common. They were all easy to share, they all presented a novel experience and the activity was largely democratic – easy for most people to participate.  But they also share one other, very important ingredient – they all powerfully satisfy our insatiable human need for “fun”. Yep, that’s it.

Now before you reject “fun” as being too lightweight in strategic value to drive business, it will be instructive to look at the iconic viral success stories for answers.

Let’s start with Ninja Turtles or Pokémon. Their success was grounded in the fact that their fun was incredibly engaging on many levels. They provided different modes of play (cards, video games etc), the fun was easy to transport and play could last hours. “Fun” explains the venerable viral success story of Hush Puppies because Hush Puppies reminded us of when we were kids and fun ruled. Fun by association works as well.

Now let’s look at, arguably the most successful viral engine ever – Facebook. When we apply the “fun” filter we see they carefully baked “fun” into every crevice of the user lifecycle – from encouraging friends to find each other and once found, to the plethora of fun ways for the friends to remain connected.

With this new understanding of balancing the latest scientific thinking with the human element of fun, here’s what a workable viral marketing engine might look like:

  • Enable easy content distribution.
    • Bake in the “6 degrees of distribution” as Watts demonstrated to ensure that messages can be easily transmitted.
  • Elevate “fun” to a strategic initiative in customer lifecycle management strategies.
    • Concentrate on creating a fun experience throughout users’ experience – from the moment you try to acquire them through every interaction with you.
  • Promote as broadly as possible.
    • Duncan Watts advocates for mass reach in digital campaigns because without enough reach, you may not have enough “fun distributors” to get the job done.  Tonnage is one of the secrets of viral success (counter intuitive as that sounds).
  • Timing can improve the odds of viral success.
    • Until the day that some clever researcher can scientifically figure out how to time “fads” (and maybe the stock markets too), this is probably the most challenging element in this model to execute. To stack the “timing” odds in your favor, troll the edgy blogs to see what’s percolating.
  • Create community to extend the fun.
    • Create an opportunity for people to relive the fun via community building programs, whether this is a Facebook group or a formal community. Done well, it is a powerful brand extender.

So there you have it – the new viral marketing engine based on the dual foundation of scientific research coupled with the pure joy of delivering fun. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Facebook people. They made “friend requests” fun and built an empire.

Reprinted from a MediaPost article on October 13, 2009

Judy Shapiro

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