Viral. You Keep Using That Word…

This is going to be a digital folklore/marketing rant. You have been forewarned. πŸ™‚

Viral. This is one of the marketing buzzwords that hit the scene a while ago, having already spent quite a long time in Internet years bouncing around in conversation before that.

Here’s what “viral” means when you’re talking about actual flow of attention and cultural transmission:

A video, post, or idea is ‘viral’ when it spreads aggressively, seeming to grow and spread on its own (like a virus, you see. Brilliant!).

To best talk about Viral content, it’s good to mention the briefly-hot discipline of Memetics. To me, when you talk about viral videos, the idea of a meme as a seemingly self-directed bit of information making its way through an ecosystem of ideas is a useful framework, especially when it comes to talking about modes of transmission.

Here’s the important thing: If you’re a company or marketing firm, you can’t just make something that’s viral by design from the beginning. A cultural property/meme becomes viral through its spreading. You can do your best to make a meme that’s easily spreadable, that you think is as catchy and engaging as possible. But it’s up to the cultural ecosystem to decide whether something is viral.

Very often in marketing business-land, I hear the preposterous phrase “We made a viral video” or “You should make a viral video.” But that’s not how it works. You can’t just hop on YouTube, see some crazy videos that have inexplicably risen to millions of views and just go “Yeah, I’ll do that!”

Even if you’re Paul and Storm. Actually, their video from the Geek & Sundry show “Learning Town” helps explain how silly the idea of “making a viral video” is. Let’s bring in the Troubadours themselves to help out.

This is not to say you shouldn’t try to make content that’s spreadable and exciting. You should! But when you’re in the planning stages, don’t talk about how you’re going to “make a viral video.” That’s not how things work.

You can, with enough money, force something to look like it’s gone viral. You can promote it, advertise it, stuff exposure into a bajillion different outlets. But that’s not a viral meme – just a massively-advertised one. Some things are both, but virality is not controlled by the creator. The point of something ‘going viral’ is that it doesn’t need that push. If something is viral, it’s because it is sufficiently catchy that viewers/readers/etc. advertise it for you. Since word of mouth is the holy grail of content recommendation, it’s understandable why companies want to find the magic formula for making viral cultural properties/advertisements. But it’s not up to the creators to decide if something’s viral. That’s for the crowd to dictate. Viral cultural properties are an example of the Word of Mouth phenomenon going into overdrive. It’s not about you, it’s about us.

That’s how the internet works. For better or worse, only the crowd can decide what the next Nyan Cat or FUS RO DAH! will be. And that’s kind of cool.

4 thoughts on “Viral. You Keep Using That Word…

  1. barry

    there’s a great book on the same thing in a non internet light “the Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. the same principles apply

    • His work is very much “the plural of anecdote is not data”, but I really enjoy it on a cocktail party conversation level (I’ve listened to the audiobooks for The Tipping Point and Outliers).

  2. Is this like the “new hit TV shows” that haven’t actually aired yet? I never did understand how something could be a “hit” before it was made available to the public.

    • Yep, it’s all spin. The only way I could see a show being a hit before it debuts is if the pilot is released online prior to the debut, on hulu or the like. Some shows have built quite a bit of buzz that way, which is fair. But most of the time? It’s all spin.

      Since I work in marketing, I understand wanting to put your best foot forward, but that doesn’t have to include outright fabrication.

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