The Four Sort Of Fundamentals of Maybe Going Viral

Making a video or post go viral is the holy grail in digital marketing.

Depending on who you ask it is considered a dark art (chest-thumping creatives) or a shot in the dark (wary brand managers).

However a study published in the April issue of the Journal of Marketing “What Drives Virality (Sharing ) of Digital Content? The Critical Role of Information, Emption and Brand Prominence” by Gerard Tellis et al purports to have deciphered at least the broad guidelines to virality if not the formula.

The study conducted by Gerard Tellis et al has its limitations. It is confined to the US and studies a sample of video content posted by brands on YouTube over the period 2009–2013 and 2014–2017. Questions arise to the extent to which the findings and interpretations are relevant to other markets and cultures. Also given the almost constant churn in the digital landscape and rapid changes in its perceptual profile with and usage by consumers would not the very nature of virality as well as its drivers also change rapidly?

Nevertheless I believe that the findings of Gerard et al are worthy of serious consideration.because they do ring true to me as a longtime practitioner of the science and art of marketing communications while being fresh and insightful enough to not be blinding glimpses of the obvious.

Gerard et al sought to derive hypotheses about what drives video ad sharing across multiple social media platforms by studying the sharing performance of campaigns (YouTube videos) in the period 2009 to 2013 coded for 11 emotions and 60 ad characteristics of over 100 brands.

A follow-up study was conducted of campaigns released in the period 2014 -2017. This follow up study had a sample of over 200 brands with about 40 brands being present in both studies.

The study findings were robust across the two studies and seemed to fit the extant theories of communication.

Here is list of four key findings:

  1. Information-focused content has a significantly negative effect on sharing. The sole exception being when the information is a warning about an emerging risk in the areas of health, climate, financial instruments etc. Sharing of information-focused ads is greater of LinkedIn than on other social media
  2. Positive emotions of amusement, excitement, inspiration and warmth positive affect sharing. Elements that arouse emotions are surprise, plot and characters including babies, animals and celebrities. Babies and animals are more sure-fire drivers of positive emotions than celebrities.
  3. Prominent placement of brand names hurts sharing
  4. Sharing is greatest when ad length is moderate (1 to 2 minutes). Shorter or longer durations hurt sharing

The studies also found that despite the above fundamentals social media ads used celebrities more than babies or animals, had prominent brand placement or were shorter or longer ads than what emerged as optimal.

The above findings that there are more digital campaigns that don’t follow the “fundamentals of virality” than those that do is what prompts me to qualify the findings as “sort-of fundamentals of maybe virality” not because I doubt the findings of the study but because the fundamentals have possibly a built-in obsolescence. In that virality is an exclusive club — by definition only a limited of ads can go viral and if most ads started following the four fundamentals listed above wouldn’t it stand to reason that the fundamentals driving virality would shift. And who is to tell if they have already shifted?

The larger question that arises in my mind is whether most if not all fundamentals of the science and art of advertising are evanescent and have a use-by date. If so does advertising require an ongoing study of what is working in the marketplace and do its practitioners need to be open-minded and quick to learn and adapt to be successful?

Questions that would require more serious enquiry than a mere post. A book or two maybe?

I see myself as a pursuer of the truth that within and without

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