Thursday, 31 January 2013

Viral and Virality

virus (Photo credit: twenty_questions)
It has been quite a week for things viral around here - I posted the other day about Gerald Donovan's amazing interactive 360 degree Burj Khalifa panorama of Dubai and my professional involvement with the campaign to get it 'out there'.

Like many of my colleagues, I have always had contempt for ad agency people who announce they are setting out to create 'viral content' because they are almost certainly doomed to failure. The harder you try to create something with that quality, the more likely you are to find yourself naked in a crowded square holding something dead in your hand with small children jeering at you. In a cold wind.

There are also some burning questions inherent in the use of the term. How many/how fast is 'viral'? What makes viral things viral? What is the 'quality' of viral? The answer to the latter is 'Nobody knows' - a cat falling off a desk, Justin Beiber, Gerald's pano - these are all different types of viral. You can set out to create a piece of content that people will really, really want to share and watch it die the death of the neglected, while at the same time a puppy being scared by a hoover being switched on spreads across the Internet like nightshade falling across the earth in a one minute motion-capture. It's almost unguessable.

One man who knows more than most about how to create great, engaging content is Matthew Inman. He's the chap behind that most humorous of websites, The Oatmeal. His presentation on going viral, given at South by Southwest two years ago makes impressive watching. It contains learnings and is very, very funny. Which is as good as you can get, really. The whole thing's an hour, but you can drop the Q&A and not miss much, to be honest. It's linked here for your viewing pleasure.

You'll perhaps note that The Oatmeal doesn't really set out to be 'viral' as such, but Inman does create a constant flow of solid, amusing and shareable content. He has a wide (millions) viewership and enormous followings on Twitter and Facebook, both platforms he uses to extend the reach of The Oatmeal and draw readers to the content he's posting on The Oatmeal itself. Although he doesn't use, or need, the likes of Reddit anymore, he used them heavily to establish the site, participating in those communities to seed content among aggressive sharers by being one of them.

But his stuff wouldn't have got anywhere if it hadn't been distinctive, unusual and highly entertaining - shareable and willingly adopted (at least initially) by those communities of sharers.

If you have amazing content and a strong, well-implemented strategy you can improve your chances, but it's still pretty hit and miss. Even I, as stunning as I find Mr. D's work (and I have watched his images 'go viral' in the past - he does seem to have a 'nose' for it), had a wobble or two early this week.

If you're building a property online (A website, a campaign or a brand), there's no substitute for building audiences and communities organically. And that means not one flash in the pan event, but a constant flow of high quality, relevant, engaging content. It's a long road - but there's no panacea. Whatever the guy with the ponytail from the agency claims he can do with 'a viral'...
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