Social Media: ‘Viral’ does not matter

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Here’s an interesting little story. There’s a paper by Microsoft and Stanford University called “The Structural Virality Of Online Diffusion.” It’s well summarized at Convince and Convert, and here’s the essential rub: the researchers looked at one billion events (one Billion!) as they cascaded through Twitter. The idea was to evaluate the connection between something “being viral” and “being popular.” You’d assume the connection is fairly high, all told — if something is popular (meaning lots of people share it), then it will be viral (which is what people in marketing departments tend to want).

In fact, this seemingly isn’t true.

The correlation between “viral” and “popular” was only 36 percent — fairly low. You essentially can’t predict “virality” from “popularity.”

And now, get this: across these 1 billion events (quite a few events), the researchers found nothing they call “super-critical diffusion.” That means that across all these incidents and news stories, not a single time did one person “infect” (make more viral) a piece of content more than any other person. That’s a poorly-written sentence, but the idea is: the way we think about “viral” is actually wrong.

Here’s another research paper, this time from MIT. It’s called “Is Viral Marketing A Myth?” (Many marketers probably do believe this by now; one of my good friends used to do marketing work for MoMA, in NYC, and she said the most infuriating thing ever was when people would say “We need this content to go viral,” as if one can do that with a magic wand.)

In that MIT paper, the basic theory is that sharing content can increase reach by 20 percent. That’s good. If that stayed consistent, as Convince and Convert notes, that means that you could begin with 1 follower, share 120 pieces of good content, and have 3.2 billion followers on Piece No. 121.

However, it doesn’t really work like that — you can often get that 20 percent increase near the launch of something, but after a while it will start to decrease (case in point, small sample: last week I got my UnFollow stats on Twitter; I had 11 new followers — yay — and 14 unfollowers — boo).

Add all this up and here’s the new formula for successful online marketing:

It’s not about content worth sharing; it’s about content worth coming back for.

This is important for a host of reasons, but predominantly because of things like the shift in the media game. Too often, people — managers who are busy with other stuff — will say to employees, “We need something that’s very easy to share!” That’s a quick hit — if something gets shared a lot, that’s easy to show your boss and say, “Look at this. We reached this many people.” That’s why people buy ads on NFL games. It’s easy to upsell that. “We reached 16 million people!” or whatever it is.

But that’s not actually the point.

Rather, the content you create and share needs to build a relationship with the people you’re trying to reach — that will keep them coming back (they find it useful) and get them sharing it (they hope others in their professional/personal interest area will also find it useful).

These are the same principles to get people to listen to you or to create authority.

Bottom line: when you chase the ‘viral, highly-shareable content’ fox, it’s nice and all to catch it; it’s not, however, the real way you develop that story and brand.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and I’m a member of the BlogPoets network. My deal: I try to think differently about work, the future of work, leadership, management, marketing, organizational development, customer experience, and more. I’m out here trying to chase real professional connection and collaboration, not just 200K page views. Anyone want to talk? (I also do freelance and ghostwriting work, if anyone’s into that.)

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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