What would you say if you found out that #TheDress didn’t go viral because of online social shares? Would you be surprised?
I certainly was.
You probably know that viral content all have things in common. Some are LOL funny, others are WTF shocking and the best are OMG cute. Right?
Is that what made the “Charlie bit my finger” video get more than 813 million views?
Or the original Tumblr post of #TheDress get more than 56,000 engagements on Facebook?
But what caused an article on American’s not saving enough for retirement make the New York Times most emailed list with 13,312 Facebook interactions?
Why did their article on #TheDress (from Reuters) get a total of one?
Every time a new viral video, image or article bombards my social feeds, I can’t help but to be passionately curious about the cause of its virality.
The dress was a great optical illusion, but I thought the checker shadow illusion was a far greater trick.
Until I discovered these statistics and understood what they really meant:
- Buzzfeed tweeted that over 10 million people had read the post on #TheDress within 6 hours.
- The Washington Post says that there were 7.6 million tweets about the dress in less than 24 hours.
Well over 17.6 million cumulative web interactions with the dress and one tattoo from Texas man, Daniel Howland.
And this isn’t even touching Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram – all image driven sharing platforms.
Boasting nearly 20 million online shares within 24 hours made the dress massively viral.
But it doesn’t compare to what happened offline.
If Keller Fay’s study is accurate, that means over 158.4 million people were talking about it offline – all within 24 hours.
That is nearly the entire population of Bangladesh – the eighth most populated country in the world.
So what caused us to share the 50 shades of #BlueandBlack making it one of the most viral examples in Internet history?
A better question is:
How can we transform our products, services and ideas into content that gets people talking?
Word of mouth is the product of a delectable dish and the secret ingredients for active social behavior can be summed up into one word:
Can you Solve the Mystery Nancy Drew?
Before you can understand exactly why #TheDress went viral, you need to understand the psychological principles of virality (SCIENCE).
I want you to be able to walk away from this with more than understanding of why the dress went viral.
I want you to be able to turn any content you create, conversation you engage and product you sell to have these viral elements.
To get the most out of each principle, think about this as a game.
When a concept, example or anything else reminds you of someone you know, write their name down on a post-it, scrap piece of paper, palm of your hand or your favorite text editor.
Your own name is not an exception and duplicate names are welcome.
The solution to why the dress went viral is at the bottom of the page. Let’s see if you can solve the puzzle Nancy Drew.
Ready, set, go!
SCIENCE is an Acronym
These theories are based on Dr. Jonah Berger’s (Professor of Marketing at Wharton) New York Times bestselling book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” (highly recommended).
He discusses six scientifically backed principles that spur our innate desires to share.
I’ve expanded it into seven categories that will help you better understand what makes things viral.
All viral content fulfills at least one of these factors and a general rule of thumb is this:
Here are seven principles that will change the way you shape content (Warning: This might make you a little insecure about the things you share. It did for me.):
- Social Currency
- Inner remarkability
- Noticeable value
- Epic stories
By applying these to your business, you can increase social signals, spread your brand by word of mouth and ultimately reap greater profits.
On a personal note, these psychological triggers will explain why your Facebook friends share the things they do, our innate pleasures of sharing cat/baby videos and why the dress went viral like a super sized combo of Pogs and Pokemon.
Social Currency Defines our Social Net Worth
Do you know someone who posted something on Facebook or Instagram and then checked for likes and comments five minutes after?
Then checked again five minutes after that?
Or perhaps they posted something and had an overwhelming number of likes. They were so happy they had to share it with someone else.
I see businesses do this too. “We just hit 100,000 likes! Thank you for your support.”
People like to look good, but we don’t go around announcing that we like looking good.
Instead, we do it in the form of social currency.
We share things with our friends, family and colleagues looking for approval or some kind of positive response.
We like the attention we get when we tell a funny story at a social gathering (witty), when people comment on a picture of French wine we post (cultured) or when we explain why some people see white/gold and others see blue/black (smart).
According to Berger, 40% of what we talk about is based on our personal experiences and relationships.
An even more alarming stat is that 50% of tweets are about what we’re doing. Do a quick search on Twitter for “so tired” or “can’t fall asleep”.
Hashtags.org shows that 76 people (based on a 1% sample) hashtagged #sotired at around 9:00 AM (CST).
I’m sure we all have at least one person on a social network that writes a status update for every minor event in their day.
2:30 AM: “Can’t fall asleep…”
7:30 AM: “Just woke up….so tired”
7:45 AM: “OMG. Just saw a giant spider while brushing my teeth.”
8:15 AM: “Why is the bus always late?!?”
9:20 AM: “Falling asleep in class.”
11:30 AM: “Lunch was soooooo good! [a picture of your salad]”
And the list goes on.
Making your Content and Products Rich in Social Currency
To turn content and products into social currency, we need to make people who share it look good.
Any product or idea can produce this unique dollar. The concept is always the same.
Not necessarily because your product is awesome, but because they are awesome for finding it.
When someone feels like an insider, they’ll want to share information about themselves. When they spend their social currency, they will be advertising your brand, product, idea or content for you.
OnePlus One’s invite program did this perfectly. They had a spectacular product and word of mouth spread like wildfire.
For people who purchase the phone, they receive a limited number of invites that they can send to their friends.
People give away their invites as a form of social currency or post a picture of their new smart phone once they receive it.
Someone is bound to ask, “what is OnePlus One?”
They’ll boast the specifications of the phone and of course mention that it’s by invite only. Buyers will become marketers and it costs the company nothing to get their products promoted.
They give buyers an insider feel, adding to their social bankroll.
I did it too when I got my invite and I didn’t even buy the product, let alone touch it.
We need to make it so socially expensive that when they share your brand, they are sharing something about themselves.
Cues/Triggers Force us to Talk
Do you remember the epic event that went down on February 2, 2014? What about on February 1, 2015?
Even though it was only a month ago, a lot of us forget that the Super Bowl has gone down on the first Sunday of February since 2004.
My wife and I aren’t huge football fans and if you ask her, she probably can’t tell you who won last year or even this year.
What she might tell you is that she had her first bag of Ketchup Doritos and an awesome nacho dish.
Surprisingly, that’s what a lot of us will remember about the Super Bowl.
For the non-diehard football fans, we think about snacks, recipes, beer, commercials and the halftime show more than the game itself.
Using Google’s Keyword Planner, I discovered that there were over 1.2 million Google searches for Doritos related terms (ie. Doritos flavors, Doritos chips) one month before the Super Bowl (Jan. 2014). That is nearly a 50% increase in search volume from the previous month (Dec. 2013). There was another milder spike again in 2015.
The same thing happened for another popular brand – Volkswagen.
Let’s look at something more generic that is not advertised in a commercial: nacho recipes.
A Super Bowl party normally lasts a few hours and talk about it usually stops on the following Tuesday morning no matter how epic the game was. You’ve talked about it with friends and co-workers. This is called “immediate word of mouth”.
Ongoing word of mouth is a lot more powerful. These are conversations we have in weeks, months or even years to follow.
When you go to a restaurant and have a platter of nachos, you might remember the fantastic recipe you used for your Super Bowl party. Or perhaps you’ll remember a new beer you tried.
You’ll think about it, talk about it and then forward the recipe and beer brand to your friend.
Creating your own Social Triggers
Berger uses the example of Kit Kat naming coffee as “a break’s best friend”. This was an extremely successful campaign that played a large role in taking a 300 million dollar company to a now 500 million dollar brand.
Because coffee is a frequent stimulus and drinking a coffee would remind people of their brand.
Kit Kat still uses the coffee card in their marketing. Here’s an image from their Android campaign.
Find a relevant connection with a frequent stimulus and connect it with your product or service.
Integrate that trigger into your marketing efforts and get people talking about your brand.
Berger states: “Triggers and cues lead people to talk, choose, and use. Social currency gets people talking, but Triggers keep them talking. Top of mind means tip of tongue.”
When I was 16 years old, I went to a Chinese buffet with a group of friends. We swallowed our meals whole like most teenage boys do. But there was a good reason for this.
We had to get to the best part of our dining experience: opening our fortune cookies.
We went around one-by-one reading our fortunes, mystified at how a cookie could know so much about our identity.
The best looking guy at the table read:
“People are naturally attracted to you.”
He acted shy, but we all knew that he felt like a stud.
The next came out with a warning:
“Be on the lookout for coming events; they cast their shadows beforehand.”
He began to act all paranoid like the one in a billion cookies had found him for a reason.
It was my turn to read. I cracked open the yellow bundle of joy to read:
“You love Chinese food.”
Everyone went silent. We all burst out into laughter that filled the restaurant as every head turned towards our table.
To this day, I have never received a fortune cookie so accurate. In fact, all of us felt the same way.
We found inner remarkability in a fortune cookie.
As mysterious as others’ fortunes seemed, mine broke a pattern that people had come to expect. We had expected mine to say something like, “The greatest risk is not taking one.” or “A short stranger will soon enter your life with blessings to share.”
But mine stated something that was pretty obvious. I was eating at a Chinese buffet, and it said that I loved Chinese food. Of course I love it. Why else would I be there?
When there’s a mystery or a controversy, we ask others for their thoughts.
When something breaks a pattern that we have come to expect, it creates discussion and a desire to get involved.
The next time we went to the restaurant, we saw a lot of familiar faces swallowing their food whole.
Everyone wanted to get to the fortune cookie and experience inner remarkability for themselves.
The remarkable thing about that restaurant was not the food, but the fortune cookies that gave us something to talk about.
Making your Products Remarkable
Berger says the keys to finding inner remarkability are to find something that is interesting, surprising or novel.
Can your product do something that no one could have ever imagined? Is there a mystery where others will want to find the answer?
We need to create things that break the norm from what others anticipate. It is then formed into something remarkable that others can use as social currency.
Emotions Deepen Social Connection
The opera duo of Charlotte and Jonathan was moving. Two high school friends execute a surprising and emotional performance on Britain’s Got Talent.
This video has over 8 million views and the original video has been shared through Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter 157,072 times.
But the video didn’t go viral because it was moving.
Not all emotions contribute to virality. Berger discusses five emotions that have a positive correlation with increased sharing:
As you can see, virality is not necessarily attributed to positive emotions. The common denominator in these emotions is that it creates physiological arousal: the key to sharing.
Imagine it’s your first time skydiving. You are 18,000 feet in the air and the pilot has said that it’s time to jump. Feelings of excitement fill the heart.
Then anxiety hits.
What if the parachute doesn’t open? Which one do I pull again? What if I land in water when I can’t swim? What if another airplane hits me while I’m in freefall?
With your palms sweating, heart racing and legs shaking you still strap on your GoPro, hit the record button and catch this once in a lifetime event on camera.
I dare you to watch this video and tell me that your palms didn’t start sweating.
Let’s Dissect the Emotions from Jonathan and Charlotte’s Performance
The video starts with the duo walking out on stage as Simon Cowell whispers to Carmen Electra:
“Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse.”
Before the performance, Jonathan shares his insecurities about his size and the emotional damage it has had on him. Charlotte expresses her anger towards those that judge him by his body.
As they are about to perform, Cowell asks: “Do you think you can win?”
The duo nod their heads.
“Ya, together”, says Charlotte.
The camera zooms in on a couple of ladies in the audience smirking in disbelief.
The introduction to The Prayer by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion begins. Out of nowhere, Jonathan’s majestic voice echoes through the auditorium as the crowd roars in applause.
The remarkability of the first three seconds is undeniable.
But the key ingredient to this video is the emotion.
I like to think of Simon Cowell as the ultimate hype man of emotions. He creates laughter, anger and anxiety all at the same time.
The camera work is no joke either. When they point the camera at the two ladies smirking, I couldn’t help but to feel outraged at the judgments being passed.
The music plays, and as Jonathan belts out a surprising tone, feelings of awe and excitement fill the heart with laughter and butterflies.
The video is not just a performance. It was designed in a way to elicit emotions for everyone who watches it.
The first thing I wanted to do after watching this video was share it on Facebook.
Crafting Emotions that Work
Focus on these five emotions:
Berger states that sadder articles are 16% less likely to make the New York Times most emailed list. No one likes to start a conversation that will dampen the mood.
If you manufacture plastic bags, you may not want to create an advertisement about health hazards as it will likely decrease sales.
Maybe there’s something about plastic bags that most of us don’t know.
Get creative. Here’s an example of a blender company that created the awe factor perfectly.
Noticeable Value is Practical
I love electronics. But something I love more than electronics is getting them for an unbeatable deal.
I am signed up for nearly every newsletter for major electronics stores, and I always take the time to skim through their newest sales on Thursdays and Fridays.
I became known in my circle of friends as the deal finder. Anytime they were looking for a TV, cell phone or even a blender, I would be the first person they would contact.
I was getting so many requests, that I would always respond with the same message. “I’ll let you know if something comes up.”
I had so many products people were looking for that I began comparing prices on eBay as a benchmark. If it was lower than eBay then I thought it was a good enough deal to share.
There was noticeable value in the deal, and I knew people were looking for it.
But it wasn’t just about the price. It was about the way it was positioned.
Best Buy Canada is infamous for setting limits on quantity. They’ll show the original price, sale price and highlight “Limit: One per customer”.
The deal must be so good that they don’t want others buying and selling their items right?
The truth is: they don’t care.
If Best Buy was selling the laptop for $300 off MSRP and the same laptop is selling for $100 more on eBay, then it must be a great deal.
Especially since we are only allowed to buy one.
There was value in Best Buy’s deal and sharing it with my friends would provide value to them.
Sure enough, the majority of deals I shared with friends were purchased within fifteen minutes of sending it. Some people would even forward my email to others letting them know about this great deal.
People want to help others get accurate information quick.
It doesn’t have to be a good deal. It can be targeted around a seemingly boring topic like plastic bags, blenders or content marketing.
If you can be the person to provide practical and noticeable value on something, others will be more inclined to share it.
The noticeable and practical value then become your social currency.
Word of mouth is powerful and it travels faster than Lightning McQueen.
Communities Influence us
Why do people spend thousands of dollars on handbags and watches?
Some people will argue that the quality is much better. While this is true in many circumstances, a $20 bag at Walmart and an $8,000 Fendi bag at Nordstrom serve the same purpose.
They hold things or tell the time.
Top quality brands are a symbol of status. They make us look good (social currency) and sometimes make us feel better about ourselves.
These crazy notions have been driven into our heads by what we see around us.
Communities influence us. Monkey see, monkey do.
We are influenced in the way we dress, the places we eat, the cars we drive, the way we speak and the accessories we purchase.
This is called social proof.
Have you ever seen an empty tip jar?
Neither has anyone else.
Bartenders, take-out restaurants and coffee shops always seem to have about $10 – $20 in tips. There are mostly coins and dollar bills, but you’ll find the occasional five or ten in there.
They fill the tip jar before they their shift starts.
“If the tip jar is empty, their customers may assume that other people aren’t really tipping and decide not to tip much themselves either. But if the tip jar is already brimming with money, they assume that everyone must be tipping, and thus they should tip as well.”
Making your Products more Community Oriented
The more public your products and information are made, the more it will get talked about within your communities.
The more integral it becomes in our daily lives, the more inclined others are to share it, buy it and use it.
This was the exact reason why I bought a BlackBerry.
I would send emails from my home computer and a few friends that had a BlackBerry would respond almost instantaneously.
At the bottom of their email, it always read: “Sent from my BlackBerry”.
It wasn’t difficult to change that message to something more natural like:
But people didn’t care to change it. Why? Because it included both proof and currency for the sender.
How many people do you still know that have their iPhone email signatures as “Sent from my iPhone”?
Remember, people like to share about themselves. Having your brand integrated in others’ lives gives them social proof and free word of mouth for you.
Allow new prospects to discover, recognize and then follow what others are doing – talking, using and buying your brand.
Epic Stories: Who doesn’t love one?
Think of the last group gathering you went to.
There’s usually one person who always has an epic story. The content of their story might be uninteresting like getting a haircut or driving to work.
But for some reason, you can’t help but to be completely enamored by the way they tell the story.
You can’t stand it when someone interrupts. You must find out what the buildup is leading to.
Then they drop the punch line and everyone’s eyes bulge out of their eyes followed by exclamations of “NO WAY!”
If the story was that good, then you’ll probably tell someone else about it. Think about the number of stories that you’ve told that start with “I was talking with a friend last night….”
After you finish telling the story, most people won’t give you the same reaction. “You had to be there” is not the reason why.
It’s because you didn’t create the same emotions, practical value or social currency for them to continue sharing.
You told the story completely wrong.
Narratives are more engaging than facts. My best teachers have always been ones that could explain complicated concepts using examples with stories.
The Walking Dead is awesome at this. Every time an episode ends, there’s a cliffhanger at the end. I watched the first four seasons of The Walking Dead in five days. This show completely ruined my week.
I started getting scared of zombies popping out of the woods while driving past forested areas. I wasn’t only hooked, but I was immersed in their story.
One Requirement for your Story
Berger puts it best:
“…stories contain helpful information: a good route to take if the highway is blocked; a great dry cleaner if you need to get out tough stains.
Stories, then, can act as vessels, carriers that help transmit information to others.”
Stories act as great avenues for cues/triggers, currency and social proof.
Still Playing our Game?
So how many names did you write down? Most of us probably stopped writing because too many names came to the top of your mind.
Here’s the deal:
We are all victims in the SCIENCE of sharing.
Maybe victim is a little harsh, but humans are created to share and be social.
The event of the dress spurred this innate desire in me to find out why it went viral. It caused me to investigate further and I came across Dr. Jonah Berger’s book: Contagious.
I’m now sharing it on my blog and only my blog. Perhaps it’s my social currency.
I could have merely explained why the dress went viral, but you probably wouldn’t be able to apply the same principles to your next big thing. I almost feel as though I don’t need to explain why it went viral because it seems obvious now.
Take a guess before scrolling any further.
I’ll sum it up in one paragraph using SCIENCE:
The dress started with a story. Not an epic one, but one that shared all of the information it needed to.
People made an instant connection of inner remarkability. How can I be seeing white and gold, while my neighbor is seeing blue and black? One of us is tripping out.
It created a wide range of emotions – all positively correlated with increased sharing.
Awe and Excitement:
It became a giant debate among community and became public knowledge quickly. White/gold or blue/black?
Beyond emotions, there was some noticeable/practical value that came along with it.
The practical value made millions of people talk about why some of us see white/gold and others blue/black. The next optical illusion you see of similar value may trigger you to remember the dress.
This became a massive piece of social currency on top of the currency already in place: looking good by creating a controversial debate between friends and family.
Remember, the more SCIENCES that exist in the content, the more viral it will go. #TheDress had an astonishing amount of triggers that caused us to keep talking.
It all happened by word of mouth.
Now it’s Your Turn
You can either say that you understand why the dress went viral, or you can create some viral content of your own.
Whether you’re a business owner or a self-proclaimed WIWT Instagram model, you can apply these same principles to products you create, articles you write and images you share.
Create your SCIENCE-tifically driven content that will get your audience talking and stay talking.
Before you throw out that list of names, let those people know that you were thinking about them. You don’t have to tell them why 😉
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