What is the secret to creating great viral content that will engage your audience?

If a scientific formula existed to make content go viral, everyone would be using it, and the term viral would have lost all meaning.

Bruce Carlson, marketing creative,
Blendtec bcarlson@blendtec.com

For years, Blendtec relied largely on trade shows, word of mouth, and live demonstrations to market the quality, power, and safety of its blenders.

Long before the wildly successful viral video Will It Blend? took to YouTube, the company's marketing slogan might well have been, "If you build it, they will come."

In 2006, with a budget of only $50, Blendtec founder Tom Dickson created the first Will It Blend? videos after spending years tinkering with machines, blending objects to dust. The videos featured the liquefaction of marbles, a rake handle, a Big Mac meal, and a whole chicken. Seven years and 130 episodes later, Will It Blend? is one of the most successful viral video series with 232,002,181 views on YouTube.

A good portion of the campaign's success is happenstance. It just so happens that what Tom was doing at his workbench - as far back as 20 years ago - is precisely the kind of content YouTube viewers crave. It was a simple formula that required nothing more than timely, relevant blends.

The most popular video of the series was the first Apple iPad. Other highly viewed videos blended a Justin Bieber doll, BIC lighters, and glow sticks.

While YouTube is a rather indirect way to reach our target market - face it, teenage destructophiles are not typically in the market for a premium blender - it does give the Blendtec brand plenty of exposure in return for a minimal investment.

There are two reasons behind the success of Will It Blend? First, it showcased a product that easily impresses. Second, the subject matter was timely and entertaining. In our case, pop culture is an endless treasure trove of content ideas. Whatever floats to the top in the current zeitgeist is a candidate for the next Will It Blend?

Alex Jutkowitz, managing partner, Group SJR
ajutkowitz@groupsjr.com

There is no secret. Viral content shouldn't be placed on such a pedestal anyway. All kinds of stuff can go viral, and the message is often hijacked. It's much more of a skill to successfully reach your target audience.

If you really want to influence business decision-makers, where is the value in a bunch of teenagers laughing at a YouTube clip? All content, viral or not, requires you to consider the end goal before you even begin to create it. Don't try and force a piece of bad content to go viral. Instead, you should think about who the audience is, and then tailor it to their needs and interests.

If a scientific formula existed to make content go viral, everyone would be using it, and the term viral would have long since lost all meaning. However, this has not stopped researchers from trying to figure it out. In pursuit of a viral recipe, Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, studied how products, ideas, and behaviors become popular for his new book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On. He studied the most emailed New York Times articles and noted commonalities. Viral content tended to inspire feelings of awe, anger, or anxiety.

But that's only part of the bigger picture in which content must do more than evoke an emotional response. To improve your chance of going viral, it should also be visually gripping, intelligent, witty, and provided in context. Mixing these ingredients will compel people to share the content because it makes them seem smart by association. You are creating content for conversation - and knowledge is contagious.

Pamela Rutledge, director, Media Psychology Research Center
prutledge@mprcenter.org  

For communications, viral content depends on individuals taking action, which in itself defies the traditional top-down models of marketing and PR. The networked environment relies on social processes to motivate and persuade the audience to share.

Viral content delivers by creating a connection between people, enhancing social capital through reciprocity and sharing, offers solutions to real problems, and satisfies the brain's need to know what happened.

How did Karen Cheng learn to dance? You might not care that she learned to dance, but your brain will probably want to see the transformation during 365 days. [Cheng created a time-lapsed video titled Girl Learns to Dance in a Year.]

Marketers know that word of mouth is the most powerful form of advertising. We respond to things that are sent by people we know. We assume if someone who knows us sent it, it is because they think it will have value and you will find it compelling, entertaining, or useful. Consequently, you are predisposed to try to like it. If you do, they've just modeled what you're supposed to do with viral content - pay it forward.

Advocacy campaigns can also engage our emotions in ways that support viral sharing. Kony 2012 is the poster child for this. Clever use of social media, celebrity engagement, fear, and a call to action can take viewers through the complete story arc.

In spite of the seriousness of the plea, a doable call to action makes us feel effective, reinforcing our sense of agency and identity as a caring member of society.

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