Advertisements tell us how great a product is, but this is precisely why they often lack credibility. Our friends, on the other hand, tell it to us straight. However, when it comes to sharing information within a social network, we don’t share with everyone indiscriminately. In fact, within a social context, word of mouth is incredibly targeted.

If you think about your own conversation choices, you'll notice that we don’t share the same stories or recommendations with everyone we know. Our conversations are usually directed toward a particular audience, and we tend to select stories we think the person will find most relevant. For example, we wouldn’t tell a friend who doesn’t have a pet about the best vet in town. This means that, by nature, word-of-mouth tends to reach the people who are most interested.

While brands are amplifying their messages and arguing that their products are the best, our backyard conversations and friends' objectivity and candidness make it more likely for us to trust and listen to them over the brands. But what drives backyard conversations and peer recommendations of products, services, and brands?

Key factors influencing the spread of ideas

Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: How Things Catch On covers the core concepts important to understanding the psychology behind why people share messages. A central theme in this understanding is the concept of social currency.

But what is social currency? Social currency refers to the value and benefits people derive from sharing information, ideas, or experiences that enhance their social standing among family, friends, and peers. Imagine social currency as a bank account. Each time you share something interesting, useful, or entertaining, you make a deposit into your social account. If you share a fascinating article, a funny meme, or a helpful tip, your social bank account increases because others perceive you as knowledgeable, entertaining, or resourceful. Conversely, sharing uninteresting or irrelevant information might result in a withdrawal from your social bank account. Just like a healthy bank account allows for financial transactions and investments, a robust social currency account enables stronger social interactions and influence.

Emotions also play a key part in whether something is shared. Content that evokes positive emotions like awe, amusement, or inspiration tends to be shared more widely, as these feelings make people feel good and prompt them to spread the positive emotions. For instance, inspirational stories or humorous videos often go viral because they uplift and entertain the audience, who then feel motivated to share these positive feelings with their networks. On the other hand, while negative emotions can also drive virality, they do so differently. Content that evokes high-arousal negative emotions such as anger or anxiety is more likely to be shared than content that evokes low-arousal negative emotions like sadness. For example, outrage-inducing news articles or alarming information about potential threats often spread quickly because they provoke strong reactions and a sense of urgency, prompting people to share as a form of alerting others.

Why does understanding social currency and emotions matter?  

A marketer's ability to develop viral content and promotional material that encourages individuals to share messages with their social network helps to amplify the message's reach exponentially. The ultimate goal is to create a compelling and shareable message that spreads rapidly, reaching a wide audience without incurring additional or significant marketing expenditure.

While word-of-mouth has always been the gold standard for effective marketing, the rise of social media platforms in the 2000s provided grounds for measuring word-of-mouth and viral marketing. Social media platforms made it easier for consumers to share content with large networks, a capability that was further amplified with the introduction of video-sharing platforms like YouTube in 2005.

Campaigns such as the "Ice Bucket Challenge" in 2014 highlighted the power of viral marketing for social causes. The challenge encouraged individuals to pour ice water over their heads, share the video, and nominate others to do the same, leading to widespread participation and significant fundraising for ALS research.

The emergence of influencer marketing has also become a significant component of marketing strategies designed to develop viral messages. Influencers with large followings can rapidly disseminate content to a broad audience, enhancing the potential for virality.

What are some of the benefits of viral marketing?

Viral marketing is cost-effective and significantly reduces advertising costs by relying on organic sharing and word-of-mouth promotion. Once a piece of content starts to spread, it can reach a vast audience without additional expenditure. The interconnected nature of social networks allows content to reach a global audience quickly. A well-crafted viral campaign can achieve widespread exposure in a short period. Furthermore, messages shared by friends and family are often perceived as more trustworthy than traditional advertisements. This peer-to-peer endorsement can enhance the credibility and impact of the marketing message.

Viral content also often encourages user interactions such as likes, shares, comments, and participation in challenges. This high level of engagement can boost brand awareness and loyalty. The digital nature of viral marketing also allows for precise tracking and analysis of campaign performance, enabling marketers to gather valuable insights into user behaviour and preferences, which can inform future strategies.

Strategies for creating viral content

To create viral content, brands need to help consumers build up their social currency. Whether a brand story or message is shared depends on whether it improves the consumers identity and status. People share things that make them look good, appear knowledgeable, or seen as an insider.  

Here are a few strategies for developing sharable content:

  1. Make people feel like they have access to insider information. People enjoy feeling like insiders with access to exclusive information. Sharing such "secret" knowledge can make them appear in-the-know and boost their social currency.
  1. Ensure your content is remarkable and noteworthy. No one wants to share things that are not worthy of remark. Unusual, interesting, and surprising information is more likely to be shared because it stands out and is memorable.
  1. Trigger memories and emotions. Everyday environments often contain various cues that can prompt individuals to think about and share specific content. These cues can be anything from a conversation topic to an item they encounter during their daily routine. For instance, seeing a cup of coffee might remind someone of a funny coffee-related video they recently watched, prompting them to share it with friends.
  1. Lean into public visibility and social proof: Publicly visible behaviours nurture desired behaviours and act as social proof, helping to influence the same behaviours among other groups of individuals. Especially in situations of uncertainty, where consumers are guided by the actions of others and are influenced by what they perceive to be the behaviours of the majority.  

In a nutshell

The effectiveness of viral marketing lies in its ability to leverage social currency and emotions, creating content that people feel compelled to share within their networks. By understanding what motivates individuals to share—be it enhancing their social standing, evoking strong emotions, or providing practical value—marketers can craft messages that resonate deeply and spread rapidly.  

The rise of social media has transformed word-of-mouth into a measurable and scalable marketing strategy. Viral marketing not only amplifies reach cost-effectively but also fosters trust and engagement through peer-to-peer endorsements. Brands that succeed in creating shareable content often tap into the power of public visibility and social proof, encouraging behaviours that others are likely to follow. Ultimately, the strategic use of social triggers, remarkable content, and emotional appeal can turn a simple message into a widespread phenomenon, achieving significant impact with minimal expenditure.

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