What causes some products and ideas to take hold and become popular? Why are some stories shared more than others? What makes some things “viral”?
In this article we will find out what are the characteristics of a contagious message, what are the mechanisms that lead people to share ideas and products, and how to apply them to our products to make them – potentially – viral.
“Things” take hold and go viral?
There are many examples of things that “take hold”: examples of social epidemics, in which ideas, products, and behaviors have spread to the population. They start with a small group of individuals and spread, often from person to person, like a virus.
But why does this happen for some products, and not for others? In some cases these products are simply better than others. Sometimes it is the price that attracts us. Advertising often affects the popularity of a product, because we only buy something if we know about it. And what about ideas?
These explanations are not enough. Think of a YouTube video that reaches millions of views, or a baby name that becomes more popular than others.
To understand how it does something to become “viral” we must think not only of how it spreads, but what characteristics lead people to talk about it, and to share it with others.
There are six elements that contribute to the contagiousness of something, which we can summarize with the acronym STEPPS. These characteristics do not guarantee that our product or our idea will become viral phenomena, but they can contribute to their popularity.
Furthermore, not everything that goes viral contains each of these 6 characteristics, but generally we will find at least some of them, depending on the type of product / idea.
What makes us appear “in” and how we can use this factor to make our products more viral
What impression do we make on others when we talk about a product or idea? Talking to people close to us is one of the most primordial social operations, and it serves to establish our position within our group. If we talk to our friends about a beautiful place that few know, this will make us appear more interesting, and will give the impression that we are “in”, because we know something that is exclusive. This “value” that we get is called social currency – Social Currency
How can we take advantage of this social mechanism to make our products more attractive for sharing?
There are 3 steps:
1. Find what makes the product remarkable compared to others.
A product can be defined as remarkable when it is unusual, new, surprising or simply interesting. Notable things are an excellent source of social currency. If we can highlight these characteristics, people will want to talk about it.
2. Use the game mechanics.
What makes the activities we do enjoyable? We often compare ourselves to others, and this determines our “place” in the social group. Using social media to engage people, for example with a competition, can be a strong incentive towards sharing.
3. Make people feel like insiders.
If a person feels part of an exclusive group, they will want to share this experience because it will give them social value. One technique that is often used is that of scarcity. If our product is accessible in limited quantities, or only at certain times, or only to certain people, we will create a sense of exclusivity, which will lead people to want to talk about it.
What stimulates us to want to share a product with others
To talk about something and share it with others, we must have it in mind. And what does a product bring to mind? A trigger, or something, that is not an advertisement, which leads us to think about a specific product. Environmental stimuli affect what we think about, and therefore also what we talk about.
Associating a product or an idea with a stimulus that we find very often in everyday life will ensure that there are more opportunities to talk about our product. Obviously there are different types of stimuli, and some work better than others.
A characteristic of the stimuli that work best is their frequency. Associating our product with a stimulus that occurs several times a day (such as a coffee break) can assure us that people will be led to think often about our product. But frequency is not enough, we must also think about the strength of the stimulus. If we associate our product with the red color, for example, we will not have a strong stimulus, because red is associated with many other products.
The world around us is full of stimuli, so there are many possibilities to create connections, but we must consider the context. We must find stimuli that arise in those situations in which our product is attractive, and in which people can then talk about it and share it.
How we feel when we share something with others
As human beings, we are social animals: we love to share opinions and information, and our tendency to “gossip”, for better or for worse, shapes our social relationships. The popularity of social media is symptomatic of our need to share. One of the things that leads us to share something with others is the emotion that makes us feel.
A strong emotion, positive or negative, pushes us to want to share an article, or a video. But not all emotions have the same type of effect.
It is not easy to classify emotions: we can distinguish between positive and negative, but this is not the factor that leads us to share. If so, we would only share things that make us feel happy or ecstatic, neglecting everything that makes us sad, anxious or angry.