Making content contagious

The digital media revolution has had a significant impact for content creators and media owners. Call it gossip, word of mouth or citizen journalism, the fact is that this week’s big online trends will likely break and spread through the ether of social media.

Given it’s such a game-changer, it’s vital that creators understand just how social media works and how it can be optimised to their benefit.

When we think about the measurement of online content and its “virality”, we have the what, when and where factors fairly well covered in the form of behavioural metrics that aggregate mentions across platforms and also estimate sentiment to some degree. 

What seems to be missing from the picture is why people share content. Being researchers, we are not willing to accept the common thinking that virality is a random phenomenon. Rather we view it as something with a set of underlying driving factors.

Further investigation into this concept led us down the academic research path where we came across support for our burgeoning school of thought.

Jonah Berger, the author and marketing professor (Wharton School) is in a similar camp. He suggests that the sharing of content is something that can be understood through scientific exploration. His work implies that understanding the potential lure of the content for sharing is an essential in trying to understand why it has gone viral rather than accepting that virality is driven simply by certain ‘influencers’.

 ‘Rather than targeting “special” people, the current research suggests that it may be more beneficial to focus on creating contagious content’ (Berger & Milkman, 2011: 12)

Berger and his colleagues have written several papers and a book in this area putting forward supporting evidence for the view that contagious content is indeed a measureable entity. Some of the core conclusions from this work include:

  • Social media is often borne of narcissism – online sharing is a value exchange which people use to make them look good to their peers
  • Social messages should evoke strong emotions
  • Context and familiarity are also important if content is to go viral.

Professor Duncan Watts in his 2007 paper for WOMMA also concludes that simply concentrating on a select few “influentials/opinion leaders/mavens” in most occasions will not be the most effective strategy for viral marketing.  A key point in this paper is that although you may have highly influential people driving a trend, there is no guarantee that they will have a pivotal role in the next one where a different group of influencers may emerge.

As well as the new papers and thinking in this area there may also be value in reviewing more established traditional social theories to help understand how they fit with a sharing model.

For example the base principles of social constructionism can help us see the importance of the “zeitgeist”, where something of value is built up and created through exposure and sharing of information. Social capital theory and Traditional Game theory allow us to consider the value of the content we share, and the trade-off of risk and reward when making decisions about what we pass on in the social world.

A common theme behind many of these papers and theories appears to be that the decision to share content is not simply made on a whim but decided by a combination of components. If we take time to understand these then we should be in a much better position to understand and optimise our chances of success in generating social buzz.

Kantar Media's Contagious Content Framework

Building upon this relevant existing literature and intent on adding to the school of thought that sees content contagion as a measurable entity, we set out to create a contagion framework to help creators predict and optimise the virality of their content.

Adding some small scale primary testing we have developed an outline framework featuring five key drivers of contagion. Whilst the relative importance of each of these may fluctuate depending on the content being tested and the target audience, we believe that these all help to some extent in facilitating the spread and virality of the message.

So, what are these factors and how do they work?

  1. Utility Value – Will people gain something from this content?
  2. Contextual Value – Does this content fit with the current zeitgeist?
  3. Emotional Value – to what extent is this content likely to stimulate some emotive reaction from people?
  4. Cultural Value – does the content fit with people’s interests / hobbies / attitudes?
  5. Social Value – Is this content likely to appeal to people’s circle of contacts? And is it likely to make them look good if they share it?
Contagious content framework image

By testing against these drivers we can use statistical analysis to understand which are key, what their relative value is in driving sharing and even look at the penalty or reward of making adjustments to them. It’s feasible to then create scoring at the factor or total level to allow us to compare different content for its likelihood to ‘go viral’.

Whilst we remain in advanced beta stages of testing of our conceptual framework, early indications are positive.

 A mobile test on a selection of newspaper headlines identified that shorter, more emotionally charged headlines were cited as the core reasons for sharing articles (thus ticking the Emotion and Contextual factors outlined previously). However we did see two groups appearing within the results, those that were looking for a short humour hit and those that seek a more utilitarian headline when deciding on whether to share. This highlights for us that this is not a one size fits all market and that we need to be aware of our core target audience when evaluating content for shareability.

Taking a more qualitative approach to the framework and case material we also saw that the John Lewis Christmas ad from 2011 performed well on the Emotional aspect (who doesn’t love a cutesy ad?), but more than this it was also Zeitgeisty (it was Christmas after all) and it was  Accessible (it was everywhere!). Not only did the commercial first appear during XFactor at its peak, but it also featured a heavyweight TV campaign that then gained traction across competitive media too, helping it to permeate social streams, creating an almost perfect social-storm.

It’s worth noting though, that whilst content may consistently score well against all the factors, it’s the performance against the most important, driving elements that determine the ultimate contagion of the content.

In conclusion we believe that knowledge of the content and core audience are essential in predicting successful viral campaigns. We propose that content can be measured against five core factors but that any approach to measurement should be both flexible and targetable given the complexities of the environment and audiences this content will reach. 

Authored by Euan Mackay & James Burke of Kantar Media: Custom.

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