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?

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