Viral 2.0

This is a guest post from Jonah Berger, Marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and New York Times bestselling author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” See the original post this is adapted from and more like it on his blog.

There’s a lot of excitement around viral.

But it’s time to move past the hype and focus on how it can really benefit business. It’s time for Viral 2.0.

You can’t go a week without hearing about some new viral video. WestJet’s Christmas Miracle. Jean Claude Van Damme’s epic split between Volvo trucks. What Does the Fox Say? Or even older, Will It Blend, Gangnam Style, and Rebecca Black’s Friday.

These videos are fun conversation pieces, but businesses see them as more than that. They see viral as their savior. Advertising is expensive and no one pays attention to ads anymore anyway. But viral, that’s the ticket! We just post something free online and suddenly we have millions of views. It’s cheap, easy, and everyone will love us! Countless emails and calls to ad agencies consist of clients saying “you need to make us a viral video.”

All of that is great except that it’s wrong. There’s so much hype around viral that people have lost sight of some of the basics. The important ideas that got people excited about viral videos in the first place. It’s time for a new way of thinking about Viral. Viral 2.0.

Here are four laws to guide your thinking:

1. More than online

Social media is great. Technologies like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have made it faster and easier to communicate with large numbers of people very quickly. Heck, without them, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article in the first place.

But as I talk about in Contagious: Why Things Catch On, only 7% of word of mouth happens online. That’s right. 7%. Most word of mouth is actually offline. Face-to-face interactions around the dinner table, the watercooler, or while watching sports.

So when thinking about how to generate word of mouth and get something to catch on, don’t just think about social media. Think about offline as well. How can you get people talking and sharing, online and off, so that word spreads about your product or idea?

2. 10 million views doesn’t matter

Everyone would love to have a video that gets 10 million views. Your boss would be happy, you’d get your 15 minutes of fame — heck, you might even get promoted.

But one flash in the pan hit is not enough (anyone know where Rebecca Black is now?). And in shooting for these big numbers, companies and organizations lose sight of the much more important goal: turning customers into advocates. 10 million views is great, but the real goal is to get more people talking, sharing, and driving business growth.

If every one of your existing customers brought in just one new customer, your business would double. You’d be ecstatic (and so would your boss). So while 10 million views is exciting, focus on the much more useful (and reachable) goal of getting more people to talk and share.

3. Shares are more important than views

When people talk about a video going viral, they’re usually referring to the number of views. A million views in three days. 100 million views overall.

But while views are an easy metric to track, they’re the wrong one to focus on. Something can have a million views not because it’s particularly viral but because the company paid to have the video featured on many websites. Or because they showed that same ad on a TV spot. Further, views are passive. Just because someone clicked on a link doesn’t mean they watched it or took any subsequent action.

Share rate is a better metric. What percentage of viewers shared the video? 10%? 20%? 50%? This batting average is more informative. It says whether people who see the content actually pass it on, or whether that content just has a big budget behind it. Anyone can buy views. Truly contagious content generates engagement.

Just divide the number of shares by the number of views and you have a much more accurate measure of how “viral” content is.

4. Not just viral, valuable virality

Viral content is fun, but it’s only useful for businesses if it helps the company, organization, or individual that made it. In 2009, Evian posted their “Roller Babies” ad that featured what looks like babies performing a series of amazing roller-skate aerobatics. Over 55 million people viewed the clip. But, when Evian looked at how the ad impacted sales, there wasn’t much of a bump. In fact, Evian lost market share and sales dropped almost 25% in the U.S.

The problem? The video has nothing to do with Evian. People loved watching it, and even sharing it, but it could have been for any one of dozens of products or brands. Roller skates, diapers, skin cream, etc. Viewers didn’t connect the video to Evian.

Viral is great, but valuable virality is better. Content people share that also increases sales, boosts product evaluations, or in some way helps the brand. If people can’t connect the content to the brand, or remember who made the video in the first place, the content ends up just being entertainment

Viral is a powerful idea, but some aspects of the message have gotten lost along the way. So it’s time for a new approach. Viral 2.0. Crafting contagious content will still help you and your business succeed, you just need to approach it the right way.


About Jonah Berger

Jonah Berger is a Marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the New York Times bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On. He consults from a variety of companies and organizations on how to generate word of mouth and help products, ideas, and behaviors catch on.

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  1. Anne-Marie

    Hi Jonah,

    I agree with everything you are saying. Today’s CMO’s and team looking to get that viral video/app/content exhibit the same behavior that ad agencies always have, looking to win awards for their creative work.

    Like most viral content, these great ads have not been known to lift sales or business in any significant way.

    Curious though… You don’t mention any examples of “valuable virability”. Are there any to refer to?

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