Virality is often confused with something it clearly is not. I actually heard the sentence “let’s do a cool viral video” more than a dozen of times – sitting in marketing meetings with senior managers. What it means most of the time is that you have no budget to produce an actual campaign ad and not closely enough cash left to actually air it on TV. Don’t expect a hockey stick!

In reality virality is a thoughtfully constructed marketing framework of the new age. It is a creative and engineered way of turning your user into your main media channel. It completely changes your core marketing processes and, if done right, can skyrocket your marketing ROI. Virality is a combination of mixing great content creation with interactive online platforms, easy accessibility, frictionless UX, obvious sharability, top SEO and detailed analytics to manage your product or ad towards the maximum possible viral coefficient k.

Before starting to dig into coefficients, we need to understand what virality means for you marketers. We all know it’s about your users sharing your content. And that is indeed one beauty of it – viral marketing leverages your users as a communication channel where you pay nada for distribution. Just to be clear, to create virality is NOT easy, but it has it’s perks. If a stellar Youtube Ad gets 50m organic views, how much would that cost in paid national TV? Let’s see. A prime time CPM will cost you $40, so you end up with roughly $2M worth of airing money. Not bad, right? But that’s not the end of the story. The mindset of your viewer sitting in front of the TV (or watching a paid web video ad) is completely different from the mindset they have when watching a video organically, out of their own motivation and curiousness. When was the last time you actually paid attention to all ads during the break of your favorite TV show? You’re not the only one. Up to 50% of people watching television are also using another device at the same time. And that’s the issue with paid advertising, you’ll never know how many of your users were actually paying attention. Viral organic views are real and your marketing ROI will feel the difference.

Viral marketing has another big meaning, which actually has to be attributed to the internet and the creators of our favorite online platforms: Everything is measurable, in real-time! Not only your views but also your likes, shares and more complex user behavior are all trackable. This turns your viral advertising into the best testing-tool you can get. A/B testing gives you instant insights into the relevance of your ad to your target group. If your final sale is online, you can take things even as far measuring revenue conversion instantly. This changes everything – you’re spending, your formats, your core marketing processes and your team.

To understand virality we need to look deeper into the virality funnel. At the centerpiece there’s the coefficient K. Here’s how virality is calculated:


K is the rate of number of messages i.e. shares or invites (i) times the conversion rate of those messages (conv%). Looking at the time cycle variable ct, you realize that reducing it is a key factor to reach a large community quickly, it is often more important than the conversion or your initial reach itself – it makes a huge difference.

Tabblo is a photo-sharing platform that launched at the same time as Youtube. Tabblo received $1m funding and got acquired by HP for an unkown price. Youtube was sold to Google for $1.6bn and is yet the best investment Google has made (it’s worth more than $40bn now). The key difference between the two was that Youtube had a much shorter cycle time (ct). With Tabblo you got an invitation to look at images and if you liked the service, you could upload your own and invite your friends to look at it. Youtube on the other hand focused on re-sharing and embedded all their videos into platforms where people are already communication on a daily basis. Hence the cycle time of Youtube was in the minutes whereas it took Tabblo more than a week to activate a user.

Re-sharing is just one cog in the big machine. Let’s create our own example to look at the key variables of a viral loop.

Let’s start with an asset, let’s say a video (can be a picture or also an action like a sign-up, or the order of a product). First, you need a channel to host it. Naturally for videos this would be Youtube or Vimeo. Then we need a distribution platform where we can reach a lot of people (and those people can reach more people) i.e. Facebook. This will massively increase the (i) and the (ct) as people can consume and re-share the asset with a click to hundreds of their friends instantly. To maximize the virality each of the factors mentioned above need to be optimized.

Most importantly the asset itself needs to be worth sharing i.e. it needs to carry an intrinsic value. The two most witnessed attributes of the most shared videos are a) they are funny and entertaining or b) they carry a certain educational information (I think you should know that). Either way they need to tell the right message about the user who’s sharing. Social media is all about presenting yourself, hence think thoroughly what your content tells about your potential influencers. To create an asset that goes viral you really need to put yourself into the shoes of the viewer. Who are you talking to? Is your message worth sending to their friends? Does it express good humor or specific lifestyle choices or novelty? Does the message augment the user in front of her friends? Most brand managers spend a lot of time thinking of their brand equity, yet fail to think of their users’ equity when engaging with their product or ad.

Next you need to make sure your asset is hosted on the right platform. Photo/video is established and you can’t really go wrong. If your asset is a game or a sign-up, it’s more complicated and you need to ask yourself a couple of questions. Is it easily accessible? Is the format bringing the best out of the asset? Is it sharable? Can you integrate it into other platforms like Facebook while not losing its appeal?

Your distribution channel will play a big role in getting great results, so choose it wisely. Where can you contact your target right now? Do you have a big email list or a large Facebook group? All channels have pros and cons i.e. Facebook groups will give you a poor organic reach (obviously they want you to pay!), yet re-sharing from Facebook is certainly easier than from an email.

Lastly you need the right buttons in the right place and make it very easy for people to share read, like and share. This is pure UX. What sounds like a technical detail for many does in fact make a huge difference. When Upworthy introduced it’s new floating sharing buttons, shares in increased by 398% (you can read more about that in the resources below). Be aware of basic psychological behaviour patterns and test as much as you can to improve click-through.

Hope you liked this intro to virality. It’s a big chunk of new marketing theory and I’m going to dive deeper into a lot of it’s aspects. Viral marketing is not a new channel or a “trick”, it’s actually the most thoughtful and effective way of communication in this era of online platforms. There’s no to-do list to make it happen immediately. It requires a change of mindset and deep understand of both your customers and the platforms they are using right now.

Lastly, virality is getting trickier every day. Companies such as Facebook are limiting organic reach. They try to make you pay for your content distribution no matter how great your viral loop is. I’ll be writing more on this subject in the next article. Stay tuned!

Steps you can start with:

  • Find out what your viewers would share with their friends, focus on what they stand for more than on what your brand stands for (your viewers have a brand equity too!)
  • Define the medium that is ideal to deliver your message and start learning about the best platform to host it (image -> Instagram, video -> Vimeo/Youtube, interactive -> Tumblr, custom website, mobile apps -> app review websites, app stores)
  • Identify where to start talking to your consumers and consider both the initial reach as well as re-sharability i.e. factor k
  • Minimize the cycle time, make your asset relevant at any day, any time
  • Request the minimum effort from your viewers (consider re-sharing) and if your ask for something (e.g. user generated content) make sure they can produce it and bring it into the loop immediately
  • Optimize all headlines, buttons, links to get any friction out of your loop


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