2010-08-25_1227Despite the cul­tural vogue of “memes” and “going viral,” the virus metaphor fails us — espe­cially us mar­keters who would like to make a mes­sage go viral.

The virus anal­ogy sim­ply doesn’t hold up. A video or news story or urban leg­end can’t spread itself; they do not “self repli­cate.” Only human beings* spread ideas, videos, blog posts, etc — and we spread them for our own pur­poses.

So design­ing mes­sag­ing to be spread by your fel­low humans means design­ing mes­sag­ing that will serve them. You must craft sto­ries worth spread­ing, from the point of view of the prospec­tive “spreader.”

I hinted at this in my ear­lier post on The Dry Erase Girl Hoax, when I said it was a story that we wanted to be true, a desire which short-circuited my (and appar­ently most other’s) nor­mal fact-checking rou­tines.  So I was pleased when Jeff Eisen­berg e-mailed me this inter­view of the hoax’s authors rein­forc­ing this exact same point:

There’s no rea­son that somebody’s bull­shit detec­tor shouldn’t have gone off when we launched this one. Peo­ple want to believe it. I think (pulling off a hoax) takes time but it’s not as big a hur­dle as you think.” [Empha­sis mine]

Then John Resig, The hoax’s co-founder, went on to explain his own “for­mula” for a suc­cess­ful hoax — a for­mula he’s proven suc­cess­ful through the launch of 3 block-buster hoaxes in the last 2 years.

  • Num­ber one, the story has to be uplift­ing. This type of thing doesn’t have to be full of mal­ice. Any­one can say some­thing bad about some­thing else. I’m look­ing for more of an enter­tain­ment value out of it.
  • Num­ber two, I’m look­ing for a good story. If you look at the ‘Dry Erase’ hoax, it tells a story in three acts, begin­ning, mid­dle and end. It must be a story well-told.”
  • So I’d elab­o­rate the first point by say­ing that the story should be one we want to be true because it makes us feel bet­ter, either about our own sit­u­a­tion, or about the world in gen­eral, or about how our long-held beliefs turned out to be true.

    Learn­ing that some girl acci­den­tally texted her dad about los­ing her vir­gin­ity on the beach isn’t nec­es­sar­ily uplift­ing, but it says some­thing about the dan­gers of col­lid­ing social net­works and our constantly-on, dis­tracted from dis­trac­tion by dis­trac­tion soci­ety. Some­thing we all felt in our guts.  And it says it through a humor­ous, and, yes, well-told story.

    This makes us feel good by spread­ing a smile and a chuckle to our friends, but also by con­firm­ing our sus­pi­cions, which is a point worth empha­siz­ing.  Although Resig didn’t include it in his list, it helps if the hoax/story/video com­mu­ni­cates an idea or truth or insight that we couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate as well on our own. When a story encap­su­lates an idea peo­ple wish to com­mu­ni­cate, it stops mat­ter­ing whether or not the story is true, the need to com­mu­ni­cate the idea will ensure the story spreads far and wide.

    Lem­mings sim­ply don’t fol­low the herd off the cliff and into the doom of a frost-cold sea. But humans do. And we NEED that men­tal image of lem­mings to describe this all-too-human behav­ior. So the term, and the false story behind the term, remains part of our cul­ture. Peo­ple con­tinue to spread the myth.

    The flip side of this dynamic occurs when the story or video shat­ters a mis­con­cep­tion that we des­per­ately want shat­tered, like when The Girl Effect video hits us all in the gut with hope for Africa and other poverty-stricken coun­tries. If you haven’t seen it, yet, watch it below; it says some­thing impor­tant, it’ll make you smile, and it’s a story well told ;)

    YouTube Preview Image

    * Yeah, I’m aware that killer whales and dol­phins and maybe even some pri­mates spread “ideas,” but none of them seem to con­sume much media, or sub­scribe to blogs, or even to fall prey to hoaxes, so I’ve cho­sen to exclude them from our dis­cus­sion, OK?

    amazing-girl-quits-6What makes some urban leg­ends go viral?

    Well, for the real answer, you can always read the highly rec­om­mended Made to Stick, which was based on the Heath Bros study of this very ques­tion.  But apart from their SUCCES model, there’s one fac­tor that I think the book doesn’t dis­cuss quite directly enough:

    Often­times, the urban leg­end is some­thing we want to be true.

    Now, in a world of leg­ends about kid­ney thefts, that might sound a tad grue­some, and I’d be will­ing to admit this fac­tor isn’t always at play, but more often than not, I think you’ll find even the scary urban leg­ends con­tain some ele­ment of Schaden­freude — some way of mak­ing the world more inter­est­ing or poet­i­cally just, even if that requires rais­ing the spec­tre of the bogey man to do so.

    Case in point, this won­der­ful fable about a girl quit­ting her job via dry erase board pics e-mailed to her entire office.If you haven’t seen it, I prac­ti­cally guar­an­tee it’ll brighten your day.

    So while I usu­ally check these things out on Snopes or Google, I didn’t do that for this one. I wanted it to be true. Even after I was e-mailed the news the story was false, it still felt like it ought to be true.

    And isn’t that a les­son in copywriting?

    Start off with an image or story that the reader wants to be true — and really IS true — and you’ll find the rest of the per­sua­sion process easy.



    by Jeff

    6a00d8341c51c053ef013485bc7a83970cAdver­tis­ing doesn’t affect you, does it?  But it does influ­ence your friends and neigh­bors, right?

    If you agree with those sen­ti­ments, as many do, you’re falling prey to what’s become known as the “third-person effect.”

    As it turns out, adver­tis­ing is effec­tive on all of us, even you and me.  We’re just noto­ri­ously bad at fig­ur­ing out our own motives, espe­cially when it comes to sens­ing the sub­con­scious, half-conscious, and uncon­scious desires and impulses that drive much of our behav­ior.  But we’re much bet­ter at the cool obser­va­tion of oth­ers, so we can see that adver­tis­ing works on “the masses” and even on our friends and neigh­bors. Hence the third per­son effect: “adver­tis­ing doesn’t work on me, but it sure seems to affect others.”

    Want to know how to turn this to your advantage?

    First, real­ize that the third-person effect is stronger when the mes­sage isn’t directly rel­e­vant to the listener/viewer/reader.  As PSYBLOG explains it:

    In other words peo­ple are likely to be influ­enced more than they think on sub­jects that are cur­rently of lit­tle or no inter­est to them. An every­day exam­ple would be see­ing an advert for a car, when you’re not in the mar­ket for a new car. We’d prob­a­bly guess it has lit­tle or no influ­ence on us, but this research sug­gests we’d be wrong.

    Now, I’m extrap­o­lat­ing a bit here, but this rather pre­cisely matches what my and my col­leagues expe­ri­ence with radio adver­tis­ing: despite the innate desire to reach peo­ple who are already in the mar­ket right nowthe best time to influ­ence your prospect is BEFORE they need what you’re sell­ing, so that they enter the mar­ket with an already estab­lished pre­dis­po­si­tion to favor you and your brand.

    When I don’t have a strong opin­ion and have lit­tle vested inter­est, it doesn’t take much to sway my pref­er­ence. And frankly, this describes exactly how most peo­ple think about a great many markets.

    Do you really have a strong opin­ion on which car­pet cleaner to call? Or which Small Engine Repair shop is the best? Or who has the best pres­sure wash­ing ser­vice for your deck or fence, and so on?

    Most of us don’t — until we need that ser­vice or prod­uct — then we’d rather not make a blind deci­sion. And that’s where advertising’s influ­ence makes all the difference.

    With the right ad cam­paign, your audi­ence will think of your com­pany first and feel the best about you.  Good enough, at least, to pick you instead of the com­pe­ti­tion, because you’ll no longer be a “blind choice.”

    Pre-internet, this kind of brand­ing cam­paign meant the prospect would flip open the Yel­low Pages and pur­pose­fully look for your ad, rather than scan­ning the page in hopes that one of the ads might catch her eye.

    Now, in the age of Google, it means the prospect searches on your com­pa­ny­name or even your Website’s URL rather than typic in more generic search terms for your mar­ket. And that pretty much screws your com­pe­ti­tions’ fancy schmancy SEO and PPC work, deliv­er­ing the prospect straight to your Web­site and then your door.

    Just don’t be sur­prised when your newly thronged store and con­stantly ring­ing phone are pop­u­lated by cus­tomers claim­ing to have heard about you from a friend, rather than your radio ads — ’cause every­one knows they’re not influ­enced by adver­tis­ing ;)