The Viral Marketing Myth

I’m very much in the sceptical camp when it comes to viral marketing. That’s not to say that I believe that the concept of an idea spreading in a viral way is wrong, merely that I don’t believe it’s something that we can predict or control. I posted a piece back in 2011 about some Harvard research that cast doubt on the traditional notions of how ideas spread through a social network.

Some new research by Sharad Goel adds further weight to our understanding of just how ideas spread. He kinda suggests that it doesn’t happen at all.

Goel and his colleagues studied seven different online scenarios to see how they spread:

  1. Yahoo! Voice, an online phone service started in 2004;
  2. Zync, a Yahoo! Instant Messenger video-sharing application;
  3. Friend Sense, a Facebook app introduced in 2009;
  4. “The Secretary Game,” the online version of a classic hiring test devised by psychologists;
  5. Yahoo! Kindness, a charitable website launched in 2010;
  6. News stories sent via Twitter in November 2011;
  7. and Youtube links diffused through Twitter in November 2011.

The traditional thinking of viral memes is that they spread from friend to friend, which is known as multistep diffusion. Goel’s data reveals that to be a complete myth.

“What we see is something qualitatively different. Most of the time it adopts and dies out within one generation,” Goel says.

For each of the seven scenarios examined, just 6% of them managed to get passed along more than once. In other words, this notion that our content will magically spread throughout the six degrees of seperation that ties together the entire world is little but a myth. If we’re lucky it might get seen by a friend of a friend.

The data suggests that a more realistic target to aim for is 20% spread. So if you reach 10 people with your message, it’s realistic that another two people will then get to hear of it, which isn’t bad.

Of the outliers that were uncovered through the study, all were found to achieve their success through a traditional broadcast approach than through anything approaching viral.

Goel is following up his initial study with another that will look at what makes things popular online. It’s currently under peer review and is expected to be released in March. For anyone looking to spread an idea, product or piece of content it should be compulsory reading.

In the meantime, the following video should be well worth watching.

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