3 Rules for Viral Success

Oct 28, 2010

Just watching Grover say "I'm on a horse. Cow." in the pitch-perfect "Smell Like a Monster," took me back to this summer’s Old Spice Guy social media campaign, and all the advice that followed to help marketers crack the Old Spice secret formula. No doubt there are people using that advice right now to recreate that famous monocle smile. But it takes more than a checklist to create a viral hit. Reverse-engineering the Old Spice Guy is just going to make a lot of things that smell like the Old Spice Guy - but aren't.

The advertising world obsesses about what makes things go viral, so when a true viral hit like Old Spice Guy happens, everyone's going to try to deconstruct it. So from this campaign we got lessons for brands, lessons for public speakers, and just plain lessons.

Luckily for us at Yahoo, we have scientists to do the obsessing for us. A Yahoo Labs research team analyzed millions of Tweets to find out what makes something a success. This study only looked at Twitter, but most of its findings translate to other channels, too.

Their conclusion? The tweets that were retweeted endlessly looked an awful lot like those that weren't. And 99.9% of tweets went absolutely nowhere. The only two factors that predicted success were the number of followers, and whether or not the person tweeted it had had a viral hit before. Nothing else - whether it was funny or not, subject matter, timeliness, media format - matters.

Well, scratch that. It's tough to imagine something going viral if it's not clever. Old Spice Guy wouldn't have been a hit if he just sat around telling people how to smell like a man. You have to have all the basics of "virality" down. But as Yahoo research scientist Duncan Watts says, "That's not a recipe for success - it's a recipe for probability for success. "If no one actually decides to pass your content along, it's not viral. It's just a really nice portfolio piece.

Three rules for viral success

What? Didn't I basically just say the rules don't matter? Well, Watts does offer up some rules. They just don't work the way you'd think they work.

You can't make viral happen:
The first thing you need to do, Watts says, is accept the fact that you can't control whether or not something goes viral. If that sounds like the Serenity Prayer from a 12-step program, you're not too far off. Consider this a 3-step program for social media 12-steppers. You can create a great campaign, but you can't make it a hit. This, by the way, is a great point to make to your boss.

Get the recipe right:
You have to create the kind of content that people want to pass along, so it needs to combine things like humor, interactivity and buttons that let you share. Usually, it can't talk about the brand head on. (Which is a rule Old Spice Guy seems to have broken. Or did he? Discuss!)

One of the things that Old Spice Guy did right is tap into the networks with large followings. Since that's one of the few factors that Watts' team found does work, doing that for your content should help it spread. The bigger your soapbox, the more likely people will be able to hear you.

Try lots of stuff:
You don't know which of your ideas is going to take off, so you have to try a lot of them. Remember Elf Yourself, the viral hit from OfficeMax? It's easy to look back at it now and see why it's a hit. Because... everyone loves tiny little feet, right? But as AdWeek's Brian Morrissey said in a recent presentation, that wasn't the case when it was built.

OfficeMax and its advertising agency partners made 24 different sites, many of them duds. Morrissey emailed Daniel Stein of EVB, one of the agencies that created it, who said that he was surprised that something like "Reindeer Arm Wrestling" wasn't the one that made it big. "What it shows is that brands need a portfolio approach when looking to embed in digital culture," Morrissey said. "There will be duds, without a doubt, and it's time brands get OK with that."

By making a lot of good campaigns, OfficeMax increased the odds that one of them would break through. "You want to create a strategy where you don't have to be right," Watts says. He compares this to card-counting in Vegas. When you're counting cards, you're not trying to win every hand. You're just trying to increase the odds of winning morehands.

I should be clear - I think you should listen to lessons from the Old Spice Guy. Not because they're going to give you a hit, but because they're good things for your brand. And possibly because the man has one helluva silverfish hand catch.

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