The snowball effect – Why there’s no such thing as going viral for brands…

“I’ve got no budget, can you make this go viral?”

It’s the sentence that any marketer dreads hearing. You get a client brief with no media budget and the expectation is that you can sprinkle some magic dust and make a hit.

The lingering perception within digital is that ‘earned’ is the new ‘paid’, that social is free and we should pump more money into making content than actually supporting that content. I’ve seen this mistake over and over again – a brand spends big on a piece of activity it expects to be huge organically, and acts surprised when it falls flat on its face due to lack of paid support.

Though ‘shareability’ can certainly be optimised for, it’s often a lottery, but there seems to be a feeling that ‘going viral’ can be done without budget.

Not according to Derek Thompson.

No such thing as viral?

In his brilliant new book “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction” Thompson, an editor for The Atlantic carefully and scientifically analyses what really makes things ‘go viral’. As Buzzfeed might say ‘what he found will shock you’.

According to Thompson, there’s ‘no such thing as going viral’ for brands.  At least organically.

Basically, almost nothing goes viral without a lot of help and the viral metaphor is misleading at best and counter-productive at worst. His theory should be music to the ears of marketers.

He outlines why going viral has become shorthand for “that thing got big really quickly, and I’m not sure how”. By examining the information cascade for smash hits like the Volvo truck video Thompson found that in almost all cases of ‘virality’, exposure from marketing, paid media, a large broadcast moment and powerful distribution created the inflection point.

It’s these elements, and not organic sharing, that really make monster hits.

Only when a piece of content started getting picked up by large networks or websites, often after it had been pushed heavily with paid support, was it likely to reach ‘viral’ status.

In the book, Thompson also describes how popularity is created online through a snowball effect – things that are popular tend to get more popular. This makes sense. Since we place so much power in the opinions of the herd, we’re far more likely to watch and share something that already has 500,000 views and thousands of likes or shares (whether they’re paid or not), than something with 10 views.

Spending heavy on paid media up front is the best way to sow the seeds for virality. We’ve been told for years that ‘content is king’, but we’ve fallen foul of the ‘Field of Dreams’ fallacy by presuming that ‘if you build it they will come’.

“Distribution is more important than content” says Thompson. “You can say that a song is the best song in the world, you can say that an idea is the best for people’s welfare, or a movie is the best documentary of its kind. But without a distribution strategy to reach people, nobody hears it.”

There’s so much ‘content’ out there that without paid media and a smart distribution strategy even the best video or article is like a tree falling the forest.

The most important determinant of ‘virality’?

While this type of insight won’t be music to the ears of social gurus telling us that paid media is a thing of the past, it does tally with other research out there.

According to Unruly Media, experts in this viral video space, often marketers don’t distribute their content well at all, and this leads to nobody seeing it. Videos languish and they don’t get seen. The most important determinant of ‘virality’ besides the content is what happens in the first three days after any video is launched. Support at this stage, through media spend and P.R. is crucial, as this is when the big sharing spike happens, leading to the biggest viewing spike. Around 42% of shares occur in the first three days after upload.

Similarly, recent IPA data also reflects the importance of paid media to spur organic sharing. Only 7% of IPA campaigns that generated the most online buzz relied on earned and owned media alone, compared to 78% that also included paid media. The most effective campaigns tend to combine earned, owned and paid media to create a “multiplier effect”.

They pay to “add fuel to the fire” of online buzz.

Unfortunately, many brands seem to be ignoring these findings. Jerry Daykin and Shann Biglione both recently touched on the subject online. Shann came out with a brilliant paradoxical theory that puts things into perspective:


Jerry makes the excellent point that so often with creative awards entries the line ‘we did this with little media budget’ is put forward as a positive, when actually that should be a lament. Because what this line of thinking fails to realise is that this award winning creative could’ve reached so many more people with a bigger media budget.  This should be an indication that either the agency wasn’t smart enough to ask for more media, or the brand wasn’t brave enough to supply it.

As he says:

“If you’d managed to really get behind your idea you’d have reached 10x as many people and had an accordingly bigger impact. For some reason ‘we couldn’t really convince our managers to back this idea’​, ‘we screwed up in how much of our budget we spent on production’​ and ‘we got suckered in by a promise of free unlimited social reach’​ haven’t caught on as much…”

Relying on organic reach alone to hit the ‘viral’ jackpot is not a smart strategy.

The next time one of our clients asks for a ‘viral’, either buy them Thompson’s book or send them this post. And then ask for some media budget.