The Secret to Going Viral: It's All About Culture

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While marketers may want to boil down people's sharing behavior to one, easy equation, that's just not how the social networks function.


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For many, going viral is the high point of their online life cycle. For media companies, it may soon be their primary source of subsistence. 


The end of 2011 suggested as much: social media outpaced search as a top online activity last year, and Google's decision to incorporate Google+ information into search results indicates an increasing emphasis on sharing and social referrals by major Internet companies. For media outlets, this indicates an increasingly disrupted future, where websites lose their appeal as stand-alone content destinations. Felix Salmon articulates this sentiment at the Columbia Journalism Review's Audit desk "HuffPo is built on the idea that when stories are shared on Twitter or Facebook, that will drive traffic back to huffingtonpost.com, where it can then monetize that traffic by selling it to advertisers," writes Salmon. "But in future, the most viral stories are going to have a life of their own, being shared across many different platforms and being read by people who will never visit the original site on which they were published."

But not everyone has the same viral intuition that Ben Huh of I Can Haz Cheezburger or the creators of the now-famous "Old Spice Guy" ads do. So how, if at all, can mere mortals (and media companies) harness the power of virality? In reality, the key ingredient to virality isn't the number of share buttons or Twitter followers you have, but your sensitivity to culture, that body of nuances that go beyond demographic breakdowns. Each sharing ecosystem on the web has its own unique subculture, its own sets of rules of order and norms of behavior. The secret to going viral is seamlessly navigating these worlds. 

Until now, media companies have looked at virality as a function of infrastructure: install every share tool imaginable on your website, publish an article and let natural Facebook activity do the rest. At TechCrunch, entrepreneur Uzi Shmilovic examined eight ways Internet giants like Facebook and Linkedin have used virality as a vehicle for success. Shmilovic emphasizes using a "Virality Coefficient" -- "how many new users on average does one user of your product 'infect'" -- to measure to virality of a piece of information. A coefficient greater than 1 indicates exponential growth, the type that describes wildly successful Internet campaigns like the Old Spice Guy: 

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The virality coefficient is super important, but there's one other critical number that you should pay attention to--the cycle time. The cycle time is the average time it takes from the moment that one of your users performs a viral action to the moment that a new user signs up because of this very action. It makes a huge difference if your cycle time is one day or 60 days.

David Skok of Matrix Ventures gave a presentation about that recently, and actually devised a formula to calculate the amount of users you will get after a period of time based on the Virality Coefficient (K) and the Cycle Time (ct).

Having virality expressed in this way is beneficial as it boils down virality to the optimization of two variables: maximize K and minimize ct.

The problem with Shmilovic's analysis is that it assumes virality is a structural property that can be optimized or reduced to a consistent formula. His recommendations, designed for marketers, are based on creating systems that maximize the space for sharing, differentiated with little marketing buzzwords like "communication virality" ("the product is used to communicate with other people, some of which might be potential users") or "embeddable virality" ("new people who are exposed to the content embed it on their own website, promoting it even further").

The emphasis on structural factors isn't inherently a bad thing: advancements in technology (particularly in communications) have radically transformed the speed and scope of viral products. The Economist's recent exploration of how Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences went viral across the continent through contemporary media -- namely the printing press and multiple translations into the various dialects that permeated 16th-century Europe -- is a perfect (and fascinating) example. In the social space, the prevalence and placement of tools like the Facebook "like" button can certainly be the determining factors of whether a compelling article reaches that tipping point in Shmilovic's Virality Coefficient. The Huffington Post is the ideal model here: the site amplifies its power as a clearinghouse for all things Internet-famous by deeply integrating every conceivable social network and sharing tool into its article pages. When it comes to the promulgation of ideas, infrastructure matters.

But festooning a page with strings of shiny share buttons (Digg! Mixx! Bookmerken! Dipdive!) is a wholly incomplete approach to the spread of information; it assumes that all social behavior and all social networks or online communities are essentially the same. But the human mind isn't a uniform filter, and sharing behavior differs across ubiquitous platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook. "Nobody can see what you search on Google, so popular search trends tend to reflect the more reptilian brain in people," explained Jonah Peretti, founder of viral hub Buzzfeed, in 2010. ""Celebrity gossip, sex, hair transplants ... nobody tweets about this stuff." A brief glance at the most-shared stories of 2011 on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin highlight their differences in focus.

Obviously, the culture of each online ecosystem is shaped by its particular structure, but these have more to do with the how and where of sharing; in reality, it is the why that shapes how ideas take hold. Geert Hofstede, the influential Dutch social psychologist and anthropologist and pioneer in the field of cross-cultural studies, has a succinct take on the role of technology in shaping the spread of ideas and information in his classic work Culture's Consequences. "Electronic communication does not eliminates cultural differences, just as faster and easier travel has not reduced cultural rifts," wrote Hofstede. "The software of the machines may be globalized, but the software of the minds that use the terminals is not":


Electronic communication enormously increases the amount of information accessible for its users, but it does not increase their capacity to absorb this information or change their preexisting value systems. Users have to select what information they recognize; this has always been the case, only the selection ask has become much larger. We select our information according to our values. Like our parents, we read newspapers that we expect to give our preferred points of view, and, confronted with the new bulk of electronic information, we again pick whatever reinforces our preexisting ideas. Our relatively brief experience with the Internet so far has shown that people use to do what they were doing anyway, only maybe more and faster.

People don't engage the unique structure of social networks as blank slates; they enter into each ecosystem with a particular set of values, values that shape the nature of a community and, in turn, the type of ideas and products that take hold. As Alexis Madrigal noted, different networks fill the various social niches in our lives. This is a valuable lesson not just for marketers and media companies, but any person or organization looking to spread a set of ideas or concepts across the vastness of the Web. 

Erving Goffman's analogy of social life to the theater from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life comes to mind. Goffman argued that the social actor has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume he would wear in front of a specific audience. On the Internet, we function on many different stages, with a wardrobe bursting with meticulously crafted costumes.

Above: The pattern of sound waves, photographed by scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories, 1950 (Library of Congress) 
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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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