"Viral success takes great content."
In marketing these days, the holy grail of earned media is the element of content that goes "viral." Or in normal, everyday-people speak, the content that gets passed around to just about everybody on the globe. We all strive for it. But the conventional wisdom says that you can't make something viral -- viral is simply what happens to great ideas. Thus we come to the conclusion that great content alone is the key to spreadability.
But there's a problem with this assumption. It's absolutely true that great content is a key to getting attention. It has to be funny or intriguing or somehow intensely interesting first and foremost. Without that , there's no reason to spread the link to all of your friends. But the nature of viral is that it's ongoing, and great content alone won't achieve that . So what is the difference?
I recently had a conversation with a client, Mike Monello at Campfire, about this subject, and his theory is that every great internet meme has performance at its heart; that somewhere contained in the mechanics of what is being presented is an ongoing play or drama that is continually unfolding. As long as the performance continues and evolves in interesting ways, the attention of the audience is held. When the performance ends, the meme dies.
But the performance is just the interest part of the customer life-cycle. What Mike was driving at was something deeper. While the story needs to be rich to drive attention and interest, the meta-narrative -- the facts surrounding the back story or the unfolding story of the maker, or the participation of the fans -- is what drives something from being momentarily interesting to becoming an ongoing viral sensation.
For instance, we say that Volkswagen had a viral success with the pre-release of its Darth Vader ad before this year's Super Bowl. But it really wasn't viral. It was a well-timed promotion that blew up really quickly and then went away just as quickly. It was great content and it spread like wildfire because of that . But it had no legs because it had no further story other than the follow-up PR about how great it was that it chose to release the ad in this way.
Now look at Rebecca Black or "Will It Blend?" or even the infamous "Two Girls, One Cup." Each of these videos is wrapped in an ongoing meta-narrative that transcends the original content. Rebecca Black's continued odd behavior and the fan videos give a reason to keep coming back to the original source, because the story is continually evolving. "Will It Blend?" a marketing effort by BlendTec, continues to thrive because whenever a new device is released, fans know that there will be a blending video from the company. And one can say that reaction videos in response to "Two Girls, One Cup" were just as horrifically compelling as the original content itself.
The point of all this is that when we are creating content that is intended to be spreadable, we can't just do it on the premise that if we build something great, people will come. We need to show people a richer story. We need to show them why they should be compelled to come back again and again and why they should share it with their friends. We need to think less like a movie and more like an episodic sitcom -- an unfolding story that is greater than the story of each individual episode. This is the secret sauce of going viral.