What was once called “word of mouth” advertising has gone viral with the introduction of social marketing via the Internet. What was once called a “telephone chain,” where one person called another in order to pass along news or a request in a linear model, has now gone global. One tweet from Twitter gets passed along and the message is transmitted exponentially. The post to the Facebook page is seen before the nightly news on television. Text messages are often real time. Radio once beat print media to the news, and then television trumped both. Now person-to-person, computer-mediated communication trumps them all at the speed of light—if the message is attractive, relevant, dramatic, sudden, or novel. If no one bothers to pass along the message, or the tweet isn’t very interesting, it will get lost in the noise. What, then, makes a communication message viral?
Let’s look at the June 2009 death of Michael Jackson for an example of a viral message and see what we can learn. According to Jocelyn Noveck, news of his death spread via Twitter, text messages, and Facebook before the traditional media could get the message out. People knew about the 911 call from Jackson’s home before it hit the mainstream media. By the time the story broke, it was already old.Noveck, J. (2009, June). Jackson death was twittered, texted, and Facebooked. Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090627/ap_en_ot/us/michael_jackson_the_media_moment
People may not have had all the facts, but the news was out. Communities, represented by families, groups of friends, employees at organizations, had been mobilized to spread the news. They were motivated to share the news, but why?
Viral messagesWords, sounds, or images that compel the audience to pass them along. are words, sounds, or images that compel the audience to pass them along. They prompt people to act, and mobilize communities. Community mobilization has been studied in many ways and forms.Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Seabury Press. We mobilize communities to leave areas of disaster, or to get out and walk more as part of an exercise program. If we want people to consider and act on a communication message, we first have to gain the audience’s attention. In our example, communities were mobilized to share word of Jacksons’ passing. Attention statements require sparks and triggers. A spark topic “has an appeal to emotion, a broad base of impact and subsequent concern, and results in motivating a consensus about issues, planning, and action.”McLean, S. (1997). A communication analysis of community mobilization on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Journal of Health Communication, 2, 113–125.
In the example of Michael Jackson, the consensus may be that he died under suspicious circumstances, but in other examples, it could be that the product or service being discussed is the next cool thing. The message in social marketing and viral messages does not exist apart from individuals or communities. They give it life and attention, or ignore it.
If you want to design a message to go viral, you have to consider three factors:
An appeal to emotionA word, sound, or image that arouses an emotional response in the audience. is a word, sound, or image that arouses an emotional response in the audience. Radio stations fill the airwaves with the sounds of the 1980s to provoke an emotional response and gain a specific demographic within the listening audience. The day after the announcement of Michael Jackson’s death broke, you could hear his music everywhere. Many people felt compelled to share the news because of an emotional association to his music, the music’s association to a time in their lives, and the fact that it was a sudden, unanticipated, and perhaps suspicious death.
A triggerA word, sound, or image that causes an activity, precipitates an event or interaction, or provokes a reaction between two or more people. is a word, sound, or image that causes an activity, precipitates an event or interaction, or provokes a reaction between two or more people. In the case of Michael Jackson, the triggers included all three factors and provoked an observable response that other forms of media will not soon forget. His death at a young age challenged the status quo. In the same way, videos on YouTube have earned instant fame (wanted or unwanted) for a few with hilarious antics, displays of emotion, or surprising news.
The final ingredient to a viral message is relevance. It must be immediately accessible to the audience, salient, and important. If you want someone to stop smoking, graphs and charts may not motivate them to action. Show them someone like them with postsurgery scars across their throat and it will get attention. Attention is the first step toward precontemplation in a change model thatProchaska, J., & DiClemente, C. (1982). Transtheoretical therapy: Toward a more integrative model of change. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 19(3), 276–288. may lead to action.
Viral messages are contagious.