Virality, what are the odds?


By all accounts, musicians Amanda Palmer and Psy, BlendTech’s “Will it Blend?” have all had viral success. Psy’s Gentleman and Gangnam Stylegenerated billions of views. Amanda Palmer was able to raise $1 million for her first solo album. With a $50 budget, BlendTech was able to secure over 6 million views on Youtube. Two years later, over 100 million people had viewed the blender taking iPhones, rakes and marbles and converting them to dust.

Viral marketing, on the surface, can be thought of as a diffusion of information and then adoption over a network. Similarly, information cascades are the rapid spread of ideas (or content) through a population (or network). Both concepts embody what the above examples executed.

These successes are often used to provide a framework to develop viral marketing campaigns. But what are the actual chances?

Viral marketing efforts are geared towards the propagation of information through social networks. Unfortunately, the most sure-thing about “going viral” is that it does not happen very often (Watts, 2007Bakshy, Karrer, Adamic, 2010).

What is certain, is we like to talk about ourselves- it is intrinsically rewarding (Tamir and Mitchell, 2012). Consumers generate over 2.1 billion brand impressions each day (from Keller Fay Group). We are motivated to share things that makes us appear to be in “the know” or make us appear more intelligent (Baumiester, 1998). So, while we cannot predict what will go viral, the literature gives us hints. One such hint, is to appeal to our desire to self-enhance.

Embodied in just about every theoretical framework found in WOM literature, self-enhancement, gives the speaker social currency. According to Fiske (2001), self-enhancement is the most dominate human motivation. In a study by Dunbar, Marriot and Duncan (1997), the researchers found that 30-40% of our everyday speech involved recounting personal experiences. Whether it is online or offline, we share things with a specific audience in mind and do so to fulfill certain emotional needs (Dichter, 1966).

What the above examples gave to viewers, was content that fulfilled that need. Whether it was being the first to flirt with a new business model for musicians, or knowing that Chipotle has a secret menu- it gets people to ‘like’, share or tell others.

Even with an unusually strong post-cancellation fan-base, Arrested Development has created plenty of messaging that allows its fans to project themselves as being “in-the-know”.


AD enjoyed “viral success” because they were able to seed content into a network of enthusiasts much easier– it was already culturally embedded. AD’s layering of jokes and film-style influenced the propagation of content way before season four. Similarly, most episodes were inherently meme-ready. In short, there isn’t a magical formula and one shouldn’t look to replicate something that has gone viral. Audience matters (in a behavioral sense) and is a much stronger indicator than the slick production of a Harlem Shake recreation.

Dichter, E.,1966. How Word of Mouth Advertising works. Harvard Business Review. 44. 147-161


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s