NextStage recently completed two years of research into viral messaging, what some folks call viral marketing or word of mouth marketing (WOM). As usual, NextStage's research took a slightly different approach.
We weren't interested in marketing per se; instead, we were interested in how a message travels through society. Learn what makes a given message powerfully viral and you learn how to market virally.
I'll let folks know when the full research paper is available, but right now I'd to share three preliminary items that come from the research.
A little history: necessary elements
A little over a year ago I wrote three articles based on the first phase of NextStage's research into viral marketing (see "Additional resources" below). We learned early in our research that the most effective viral messages have six elements in common:
- They are unique
- They are entertaining
- They have some utility to the recipient
- There's a reward attached to spending time on them
The above four elements were put forward by Jim Meskauskas. NextStage added the concepts of Trust and Fair-Exchange between sender and receiver of the viral message in order for the message to be successful.
Predicting viral outcomes
The last article in that year ago arc outlined a mathematical model for determining what needs to be in place in order for a viral campaign to be successful. We've spent an extra year refining that model, learning when factors become irrelevant and when they become overwhelmingly relevant, so on and so forth.
It has been quite an undertaking. You know those "How many X does it take to screw in a light bulb?" jokes? That's how this research went. "How many Millenials does it take to get the word out about an online video?" "How many Boomers does it take to get the word out about an asthma medication?" "How many 30-somethings does it take to get the word out about a new family-based resort in Costa Rica?"
Some of what we learned is directly applicable: how many Millenials does it take to have a specific message cover a 250 mile radius? About 30 ± 2, and it depends how vested those original 30 Millenials are in the original message. You can expect those 30 Millenials to get the message to 4,500 of their peers within the first two hours the message is released.
How many asthmatic Boomers does it take to get news about a new medication out? Again, vesting in the message is a key element. Are they asthmatic? Do they know an asthmatic?
Everybody knows about KPIs: Key Performance Indicators. It shouldn't be surprising that there are similar factors in successful viral messaging methodologies, such as:
- Seed population (How many X does it take to Y?)
- Some messages are bound by geographies (mile radius)
- How important is the message to the target population (vesting)?
- How much mutation can the original message go through before the original goal is no longer achievable?
- How long can a message be out before it's no longer effective?
Yes, I recognize that what I'm listing above are more like mathematical variables than key performance indicators -- Surprise! Hey, we are NextStage, after all.
These key factors are important, though. It's great to know KPIs, and unless you know the Key Factors (KFs) that bring those KPIs about you'll never know where you're going, only where you've been.
1. Do you want a mobile or static audience to get a message out quickly?
Let's say you have a message that you want to get into the largest population possible in the least amount of time. This sort of message might be a specific spin you want to place on current events (politicians and political spinmeisters, your ears should be pricking up at this)… perhaps a fire-sale at a large warehouse store or a celebrity sighting at some local gala or affair.
First question: Do you want that message to go to a highly mobile audience or a highly static audience?
Mobile? Static? A mobile audience is one that travels beyond its home territory regularly. I'll use myself as an example; I rarely travel more than 20 miles from my house in NH. When I do, it's to my home in Nova Scotia; once there, I rarely travel more than 50 miles from my home. I and people like me are static. We may interact with a lot of people within our radius of influence, and they're always going to be the same people.
A highly mobile audience is one which is local today, distant tomorrow. If today I'm in NH, tomorrow I'm at a meeting in Chicago, the day after I'm in Boston, then I'm off to Dallas for a few days before heading to San Francisco then back home...yep, that's mobile.
So do you want a highly mobile or a highly static audience as the seed population for a message to spread quickly to the largest number of people?
It turns out you want a highly static audience because those people will repeatedly remind each other of the original message (the "Three Touch" rule). I may carry the message to the same people within a 20 mile radius, but I'll be touching a lot of people in that radius. Then each of them will carry the message within their 20 mile radius. And they'll tell two friends and so on (just like in the classic the shampoo commercial).
2. Start with a general message
A way to make sure this static target audience propagates the message is to make the message general in nature. A generalized message is one that appeals to a large audience.
For example, "For the best off-roading, make sure you're riding on TR62-30 15s." Not only do I not know what that message means, I don't know many people who would respond to it. It's highly specific and not a good viral message for wide dispersal because it will only be propagated by a highly specific audience. Within that audience it might be a killer, but you really need to make sure you target that audience and that audience alone if you want that message to spread.
However, "For the best ride in all kinds of weather, see the tire experts at XYZ tire" is a highly generalized message that will reach me, reach the person who wants TR62-30 15s, just about anybody who drives a car, SUV or small truck.
The moral is that a highly generalized, non-specific message will propagate faster and further than a highly specific, highly targeted message within a large population." So craft your message wisely.
3. Change the message every X hours or Y miles
Sorry not to be more specific, and you knew at some point a little math was going to get involved. (This element comes from philology for those who want to know.)
You can make sure that the message spreads rapidly and through a large population if you periodically re-introduce the message with a slight mutation. The core message must remain intact, and the wrapper, if you will, needs to change just enough that the non-conscious mind perceives the message as new, and then alerts the conscious mind to pay attention to it.
This is a way to get the Three Touch Rule engaged without exhausting your budget.
Here's an example: the goal of a hypothetical viral campaign is to get people interested in a specific car. Three different messages in three different wrappers that all leave the core message intact would be: "You can feel safe in this car", "Listen to the high quality stereo in this car" and "Now, low financing for this car".
Now let's say you know your target audience listens to talk radio in the car and watches local news at night. There's your X hours element. Your target audience commutes from their home to work, and it's a thirty mile drive. Talk radio during the commute and a billboard to two, maybe a "community action pak" in their office mail, and you have your Y miles element.
The point to be made here is that we discovered viral and WOM marketing is probably not as obvious as it seems. We were, for example, shocked to learn that a static audience works best for many viral campaigns. We had an idea about the X hours by Y miles rule, and we knew the Three-Touch rule, but we didn't know how closely they worked hand-in-hand.
By the way, if this column has been informative or useful, please go tell two friends...
- Social Networks and Viral Marketing
- Why Some Viral Marketing Doesn't Work
- Yes, You Can Predict Viral Marketing
- BizMediaScience Viral Marketing Posts
- The Little Bug that Could (Part 2)
- "Reading Virtual Minds" Chapter 8, "Fair-Exchange or 'You Have to Give as Good as You Get'" (pdf)
Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research.