Just over eight years ago I wrote an article for iMedia called "Yes, You Can Predict Viral Marketing." The terms used for viral marketing have changed since then and there are more social platforms to use these days. More platforms equates to market and audience confusion. You want to go where the fish are biting, but there are too many ponds and not many fish in any one of them.
One thing that's been constant is the need for ROI, and old and new sciences are merging to create tools that provide amazing ROI. These tools borrow from linguistic analysis, computational sociology, swarm intelligence theory, probability mechanics, and half a dozen other fields to predict -- with amazing precision -- social marketing outcomes before a dime is spent.
These tools are complex. However, using these tools NextStage isolated nine key factors in twenty-five out of twenty-five organic social campaigns that returned a minimum 27 percent ROI and a 35 percent increase in network size in 200 days. Even better, the key factors are easy to understand and implement. Some are obvious and others are so counter-intuitive they defy logic.
Follow the steps outlined here, in the order outlined, and you'll be successful without looking at equations.
Spread the word before you spread the word
This is called priming. Comedians telling a joke do a "setup," priming the audience before giving the punchline. Poor priming and the joke falls flat.
The same is true for high return organic social marketing campaigns. You prime your audience a few months ahead of the campaign's start. It can be as short as four weeks and in one case it was one year ahead (the reason for this is explained further down). Priming creates initial interest and expectation, although at a level that only causes interest, not action. The difference is subtle and important. The average person needs to be told something three times before it gets burned into their non-conscious and their non-conscious is where you want them primed. When you launch the campaign they'll act upon it without knowing why. Your audience will be ready to listen, act, and pass the word on.
But be advised: Organic social campaigns that fail to launch will do more harm to a brand than a canned campaign that launches and fails. If you're dropping hints and nobody's picking them up, stop and rethink your messaging.
Do everything in threes
Starting with priming and continuing through the actual campaign, deliver your messages -- regardless of medium -- in threes. The brain needs to be informed in 3s if any message (doesn't matter if it's branding or "Please pick up something for dinner") is to result in action. If you ever repeated something to yourself in order to remember it, congratulations, you were "threeing" yourself.
The timing between message bursts is based on price, and don't forget -- what's expensive to one demographic is "inexpensive" to another. If your audience thinks $500 is expensive, your priming needs to begin months ahead of the official launch. Same thing if your audience thinks $50,000 is expensive or $500,000. It's not ticket price, it's concept price.
Concept price is "opportunity cost" made personal, immediate, and emotional. Opportunity cost is a rational evaluation of this or that. Concept price is the anguish involved in deciding which of two things that you want is the one thing you actually need because if you buy one you can't afford the other. Ever seen a kid agonizing over what to do with their birthday money? Ever had buyers' remorse before you purchased? All those things are due to concept price.
You remove concept price barriers to high ticket items by messaging in threes long in advance of the actual offering in order to infiltrate and compromise consumers' lengthy decision cycles for expensive purchases. High ticket items need to have ticklers out there months ahead of the campaign, low ticket items within weeks of the campaign, and in either case, backload your messaging schedule so that primes are closer to each other as your campaign is about to debut.
Recognize and use your seed group
A seed group is your campaign's early adopters. Most times this group is purchased or offered some incentive to participate. The problem with this model is that the incentive eventually expires and/or the participants want to up the ante to continue participating. Not good.
Your company may have 20,000 followers/friends/fans/etc. and that's wonderful, but if they're just following you, you don't know if they ignore your content, if it automatically gets tossed into their spam folders, or they hang onto your every word.
Create a subgroup -- called calving -- of at least 500 people who genuinely pay attention to you. You'll be able to recognize them because they open your emails, comment on your tweets or posts, are regulars at your events, take two or more of your webinars/year, etc., and specifically they pay attention to your priming messages!
These people will be your evangelists (note, not "influencers") for this campaign. You may discover the same people evangelize every organic campaign you launch, you may discover different people self-select for different campaigns. Keep careful notes!
The difference between evangelists and influencers is in their self-concept. Evangelists believe in the offering, influencers believe in their influence. Influencers will tell you how something is done and walk away, evangelists will show you and stay with you until you can do it on your own. They will help you get the word out and make it stick, and you need to have them handy before you start your campaign.
Subtle launches are better than big blasts
Most companies want to come out of the gate fast and strong. That's a nice idea but it causes more failures than successes. We've discovered that slow, steady, and measured really does win the race.
The power of any campaign, social or otherwise, comes from touches, as in "How many times does the audience interact with your branded information in a given time period?" The first part of that comes from the three time's rule described above.
The second part comes from what's called cognitive fatigue. Ever get tired of someone who may have great information but always shouts it at you? Or someone who has mediocre information but doesn't let up? You may pay attention once or twice and two things happen. One, the brain stops paying attention long before you do and two, you've taught that idiot that being a pest works.
The brain not paying attention is cognitive fatigue. The message stops getting in because the brain determines it's no longer an important message, therefore ignore it. Channel surfing was cognitive fatigue as a cultural phenomenon and the rise of personal play lists is a defense against cognitive fatigue.
The way social marketers get around cognitive fatigue is to be subtle. You won't get gazillions of converts immediately and what you will get is a growing mass of converts. Triplet messages with pauses in between, delivered on platforms where your audience hangs out, spoken and not shouted, cause more interest, response, and activity than a hundred messages shouted over a short period of time.
Think of this as the social form of "retention is easier than acquisition." Customers who are already following you are happy to continue following you rather than start following your competition. The reasons are quite mundane and are all analogs of traditional retention marketing; they already have everything set up so it's easier to stay with what they know than go with what they don't.
This means you need to have social campaigns in the queue, waiting to go. This means you don't plan one campaign, you plan several. They don't have to be continuations of each other (although revisits after recognizable downtime work quite well) and they don't have to be completely different. What they do need is to be one right after the other.
Remember earlier I mentioned that some campaigns had a few weeks lead time and others had a year? This is why. Once the campaign delivery system was in place things kept moving, and in twenty-five out of twenty-five, piggybacking caused high double-digit ROI.
The easier it is, the more you'll attract
The rule in traditional marketing is that retention is easier than acquisition. This is true in social marketing with one great exception: If you make acquisition easy, more people will join.
NextStage developed a one-click purchase methodology for some e-tailers a while ago and it's both caught on and increased customer base for those using it. It was successful because buying became a thoughtless behavior. There's no time for rethinking, hesitating, or evaluating and emotions -- the seat of all purchases -- had their way.
"Vini, vidi, vici" becomes "Conspexi, Concupivi, Consumpsi," (I saw, I wanted, I bought) in no time flat. Buying based on need is gone and concept price concerns vanish.
Attract and stick
Interest level, engagement, stickiness, and such are interesting metrics and what you really want is actioning time investment, as in "How much time does the individual spend doing something?" You want people doing something about your campaign while they're talking about it. Talk is cheap, action is expensive, and people acting will convert more often than people who just talk.
Years ago at a conference, NextStage demonstrated a social methodology that increased network communication by as much as 600 percent. It's become a social neuroscience staple ever since; information sticks when people confirm they received it.
The demonstration was simple. We timed how long a message took to move through an audience -- the old game of telephone -- from the person sitting first row right to the person sitting last row left. The message was a simple tap on the arm. Person A taps person B's arm, person B taps person C's arm and so on, and you could tap as many people's arms as you wished so long as they were only arm's length away from your seat.
The second time we added a subtle change. Person B had to return person A's touch before touching person C, person C had to return person B's touch before touching person D, and so on.
The results were eye-opening. At the end of the first exercise the hall was basically quiet. At the end of the second exercise you could barely hear yourself above the conversations in the audience. People were talking to each other, exchanging information, telling jokes, laughing, and making dates.
And the killer? The messages took the same amount of time to go from front to back in a packed conference hall audience.
What we demonstrated was simple enough:
action + message = community involvement
Want your messages to stick? Make them socially actionable.
Make it simple to send the message
One major reason the touching exercise worked so well was because the message was simple to send. All you needed to do was touch -- remember "touches" from above? -- and most people know how to touch someone. The same is true online and the "touch" methodology changes from tactile to visual; use pictures or Vine-like, short videos.
There's a lot of neuroscience behind this and the big one is mirror neurons, as in "If I see a friend doing something I'm more likely to do it myself than if they just tell me they're doing it." The majority of people on the planet will do something if they see someone else successfully doing it rather than if they just read about it.
Make your message simple to propagate, make it visually based, and your numbers will skyrocket.
Pay it forward
Design your social campaign so that person A benefits person B by including them in the chain. It's like a reverse Ponzi scheme and the language of exchange changes accordingly. People reach out to their networks to do something for their friends, not with or even to their friends.
There's a lot of social psychology behind this. Basically person A creates social collateral for themselves while incurring social debt to person B. The only way to relieve the debt is to pay it forward, relieving the debt with acquired collateral while passing the debt forward and repeating the cycle. Person B could immediately gift person A but social psychology forbids that kind of exchange in a network setting.
The best part of this is that person A will only involve people they know will continue the chain (this is why choosing the initial 500 is important). Person A knows that if person B determines the price of friendship is too high, the chain will break. However, if person A knows they'll be rewarded (via social collateral) for everyone in their chain, they'll make sure people who'll respond get the message. Add some lucre to the reward -- anything from social recognition to coupon points -- and person A will harass their chain until it acts, or they will negate their chain, a social pain too great to bear in today's highly networked world.
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"Popular social media icons on smart phone screen" image via Shutterstock.