What makes an idea viral?

Agents of change. As Gladwell states, ideas and products and messages spread like viruses do. Virals are like epidemics. It goes in conjunction with the quintessential theory of chemistry: Brownian movement – molecules follow a random movement, they do not rest. They are unstable hence, they keep moving around yearning for stability. So imagine an environment with no media or an inert gas where there is no reaction because they are complete and stable; with no desire to react or need for information. Word of mouth advertising is undoubtedly the oldest type of viral marketing. What is the difference between word of mouth, Ponzi schemes, multi-level marketing and the Susan Boyle YouTube explosion that generated over 47-million online viewers? The answer – it took longer to type about Susan Boyle. They are all essentially the same things. Both real viruses and viral marketing rely on a big supply of susceptible, easily influenced people. Based on this “Bernie” Madoff is the undisputed king of viral marketing having designed and executed the largest Ponzi scheme in history.

Stickiness. Packaging of the message. Connections and the personal character of the people trying to spread a viral can certainly help it spread, but if the message is not worth spreading, then it is doomed to failure. Virals must have a certain character which causes them to remain active in the recipients’ minds. Moreover, they must be deemed worthy of being passed on. Simplicity, for example, is intuitively attractive–Southwest’s or the then Deccan’s goal of being the low-fare airline is elegant in its minimalism. Could Southwest or Deccan include positions on customer comfort and safety ratings in its mission statement? Sure. But that extra information might hinder, not help, employees looking to the corporate ethos as a guide for making decisions.

Context. Like human behaviour, virals are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur. We are all we are powerfully influenced by our surroundings, our immediate context, and the personalities of those around us to act in an expected fashion. The TV show “Candid Camera” and its many avatars have been making this point since 1948 with a range of colourful demonstrations changing the social and psychological context around everyday events (e.g. the other people in an elevator all turning around and facing the rear). It goes on to show that these changes influenced people’s behaviour – even when they know it is strange and abnormal.

So is it viral or is it spread?
Viral is a thing that happens, not a thing that is. The metaphor suggests something is self-propagating, when what we actually mean is that lots of people are choosing to spread it around, for their own reasons. Focusing on what those reasons may perhaps, get the message driven home. To quote Joseph Heller, there was no telling what people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever questions they wanted to.

Jonah Peretti Viral Meetup Talk

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