The Art and Science of Viral Marketing: My highlights from Brent Coker’s “Going Viral”


7 min read

📕 The book in one sentence:

Packed with real-life examples, research, and practical techniques – this is a go-to book for anyone who is interested in getting some basic understanding of why some things go viral online and how to create campaigns that can reach many people, be it to promote a company, a product, or an idea.

3 guiding principles:

There are 3 guiding principles when creating content with a high potential of going viral:

  • Base all campaign decisions on what motivates people to share.

  • Eliminate or minimize reasons for people not to share.

  • Assess the motivation to share and the audience size with that motivation.

🚀 Motives to share:

👑 Self-enhancement

Self-enhancement is a psychological tendency people have that allows them to feel good about themselves and maintain their self-esteem. To self-enhance, people tend to accentuate the positive things about themselves and downplay the negative things. For example, people have a tendency to emphasise positive traits that they have but point out negative traits that others have to make themselves feel better.

Moreover, people portray themselves online as who they want to be rather than who they actually are, with an intention to make others feel bad about themselves (consciously or subconsciously). Knowing that their network might not have the same opportunity to improve their self-esteem allows them to self-enhance.

We self-enhance in different ways and for different reasons. This means, that we need to understand the self-enhancement motives of our target audience when creating online marketing campaigns.

Here are a few ways that people may try to get a shot of self-esteem online:

Approval cues – think positive feedback, such as comments, shares, and likes. If people share online and don’t receive positive feedback or get no feedback at all they will want to delete the thing they have shared. This is because has a negative effect on their self-esteem. Examples of what people may share to receive these approval cues include their recent purchases made, sporting or life achievements, and amusing or interesting situations they were involved in.

Membership cues – people like to signal something unique about themselves and share information that legitimises their belonging to a specific group they want to be a member of. Knowing the lesser-known values, the ones that are not well-recognised by outsiders can help marketers identify what content their target audience is most likely to share.

Impression management – people may share information with others to signal something meaningful about a character trait. So, even though we know that the main goal for sharing something online is for people to self-enhance or confirm their place in a specific group, the reason WHY people want to do this can differ from person to person. For example, an older motorcycle enthusiast might share images of motorcycles with friends to tell them that he/she is still young whereas a surfer may share his surfing videos to remind his/her colleagues of his/her skill and experience at surfing.

As a marketer, you will need to look at your target audience’s values, beliefs, and what they care about. The best way to start looking for people’s self-enhancement motives is usually their group membership. You’ll need to listen and observe their behaviour, and know where they hang out and what they talk about online.

🌞 Emotion

The stronger the emotion an ad can elicit, the more likely it is that a person will want to share it, especially if they want their followers to feel a certain way. For example, if they find a funny video that makes them laugh, they will want to share it with others, hoping that it will make other people laugh, too. And if the ad doesn’t affect the viewer in any way, then there will be no motivation to share it with anyone. Similarly, if a person thinks that the emotion other people will feel is likely to be negative or ambivalent then they will not share that content with anybody.

Emotional Contagion – People have an impressive ability to recognise emotions from facial expressions, and emotions transferred between people from facial expressions are highly contagious. Showing 1-2sec scenes of people’s facial expressions reacting to events in the story can help you achieve this. Another tactic you can use is music, which should be matched to the intended emotions in the story of the movie/ad.

Self-evoked Emotions – Another powerful way to transfer emotions is to generate an emotional response through memories. You can target nostalgic memories of people’s youth as these tend to be quite general and easier to access (e.g. childhood games, music, events). To be effective, emotions must switch between negative and positive emotions in a fast manner. The faster the emotions change, the better results you can expect to receive.

People tend to successfully predict how others will react to situations based on their own experiences. If someone finds something funny, they’ll assume that others will also find it funny. When people estimate that other people will feel a certain way, and that way is likely to result in gratification, that person will share.

⌛ Anticipation

Another way to encourage people to share is to create a strong feeling of anticipation. The feeling of anticipation is frequently stronger than the actual emotions experienced during actual events and it affects people both physically and mentally, making them want to share this feeling with others.

“Content that increases someone’s wakefulness and alertness is shareable because wakefulness and alertness are entertaining regardless of whether the emotion is negative or positive.”

👯‍♂️ Affinity

Affinity is a passion that somebody has for something and, when present, it is much more likely that your content will be shared online between people than content that simply evokes emotions. If somebody doesn’t relate to or care about your content, there will be absolutely no motive for people to share it.

Explore time-based affinity (e.g. memories from people’s youths), as the memories that are tied to nostalgic times of being young are relatable to a wide range of people.

⚖ Justice

A sense of justice often motivates people to share. Many of the world’s most viral stories are based on an underdog as it rests on people’s sense of fairness and justice.

In order to position your brand as an underdog, you need to present 3 key conditions:

1) A real distance between the disadvantaged person and the observer.
2) An unfair disadvantage as this is the only way to create a sense of injustice. One way to show an unfair disadvantage is to humanise the disadvantaged character by giving him/her a name and story.
3) A clear emphasis on effort and not one’s ability. The underdog character must appear to be trying to succeed, and the success is due to a concerted effort, not because of his/her superior skills. Remember, a “true underdog has nothing to lose, but everything to gain”.

👩🏻‍🤝‍👩🏻 Herding

People like to follow the crowds, especially when they’re uncertain about something. Think social proof – people trust brands that are backed, recommended, or used by others, especially their peers. Testimonials, reviews, and user-generated content are only a few herding examples.

For viral content to be successful, it needs to be seeded. Some people are able to spread information to more people than others. Similarly, some networks and groups can facilitate the spread more easily than others.

When preparing content that you want to go viral, you will first need to identify a suitable network and seed your content there. It’s important because it will provide the catalyst for sharing. If the shareable content is released into a small network with few connections, or to the wrong people within a network, then success is significantly lowered.

Try to meet these criteria when choosing a network:

  • Choose a network that is larger than 1,000 people.

  • Choose members that are closely related to each other on psychographic (personality traits, values, attitudes, interests, and lifestyle choices) and demographic (age, income, education, geographic proximity) variables.

  • The networks must be close to each other in terms of frequency and volume of everyday communication.

  • Ideally, you will be able to focus on seeding your content to uber-influencers – people who are admired and can impact the behaviours and attitudes of others. These people don’t follow the herd, they lead the herd. They are also trendsetters and leaders in culture and fashion. If you have an opportunity to do this, you should approach these influencers early, before your content starts spreading, or they won’t be interested.

  • One of the tricks you can try to grab the interest of influencers is signalling scarcity as they value rare things (think pre-launch benefits or offering exclusive member’s-only previews, etc.)

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Groups

Most people have a desire to join groups. For example, vegetarian/meat lover, young/old, male/female are all fixed groups where members can’t easily change their membership whereas voluntary groups, such as sports teams or political parties, are more intentional and can be changed more easily. When membership can’t be easily changed, people tend to rationalise their membership and are willing to defend it.

Steps for initiating group-based viral share:

👉 Find a probable split in your target audience by identifying separate and significantly sized groups in your target market. Each group must be significantly different from the other, and be large enough to create sufficient buzz. For example, a new sports retailer might use a snowboarder/skier split.

👉 As a marketer, you can also look for fixed group differences, e.g. gender, lifestyle preferences, geographical location, age, or family status.

👉 Define the ties that bind the group together and the group difference. Frequently the ties are the same as the differentiating factor between the groups. For example, snowboarder culture is arguably characterized by a skater-type rebelliousness, while skier culture is more reserved, like cycling. Once the tie that binds the group together or group difference is identified, you can begin to challenge the difference. The source of contention must be shared between both groups. Having one group care about a source of contention while another group is indifferent will not lead to a passionate debate.

👉 Find a convenient way where members of each group can join in the fight (discussion) – create a mobile app, forum, or social media group.