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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