Viral Marketing

Viral Marketing

Everybody wants to go viral. But how? Can you control it? Turns out…you can. This article explains “micronetworks” and the science of going viral.

In this guide, you’ll learn why “micronetworks” are the secret to going viral.

Viral marketing is like inner peace.

  • Everybody wants it.
  • Nobody can achieve it.

But imagine if you could achieve it.

Just target a few hubs, then bam: Exponential growth.

To solve this mystery, I sifted through hundreds of academic papers — everything from network theory to epidemiology.

Stuff like this:

Complicated Math

…which led to this:

Sleeping on my desk

Ultimately, I had an epiphany: It IS possible to control virality.

This guide explains how.

Problems With the Current Approach

Typically, marketers disperse a message by targeting “influencers” who are connected to many people.

Pitching influencer with large following of people

And it can work. However, it restricts virality for two reasons:

Problem #1: Low Interconnectivity

Although recipients are connected to the source – the influencer — they aren’t connected to each other (Lerman & Ghosh, 2010).

To maximize diffusion, networks need interconnectivity:

Networks with more interconnections are better for virality

Suppose that Person A shares a message. Then Person B reshares it. If the network is interconnected, Person C will see the message twice:

Three interconnected nodes

Repetitions trigger a snowball effect of virality. More exposures lead to more infection…more infection leads to more exposure…etc..

Problem #2: Weak Connections

Influencers are connected to many people, but these connections are very weak.

It’s not the end of the world if you ignore a blogger’s email (except mine, of course). But you need to open emails from your boss.

Strong connections are important for virality because they increase the transmissibility of messages.

Why Micronetworks Are the Solution

You can maximize the dispersion of a message by targeting a type of network that I call a “micronetwork.”

A micronetwork has three criteria:

  1. Interconnected. People know each other.
  2. Small. Most people know everyone in the network.
  3. Strong. People frequently interact with important messages.

The second criterion might seem weird. Instinctively, most marketers want to disperse their message in “large” networks.

However, most epidemics originate from small networks — like families (Ball, 1997). One person who becomes infected will transmit the infection to everyone else because they live in the same house.

Then it triggers a snowball effect.

Once the family becomes infected, adjacent networks (e.g., neighbors across the street) become infected.

And it continues spreading outward.

Family > Street> District > City > State

Suddenly the whole region becomes infected — and it all started from a tiny network.

Marketing Applications

1) Target Micronetworks, Then Scale Outward

Most entrepreneurs want a “large” market for their products.

But, ironically, this approach is counterproductive. Customers are disconnected in large markets, so word of mouth is constrained.

Instead, target a tiny market. Then scale outward.

Case Study: Facebook

Zuckerberg didn’t launch Facebook to the whole world — otherwise, it would have failed.

Rather, he targeted a micronetwork: Harvard students.

Harvard students are an interconnected network

Facebook gained traction because the word of mouth spread rapidly in this interconnected network. Within 24 hours, half of Harvard signed up (The Guardian, 2007).

And, naturally, Harvard students aren’t separated from the world. They have friends at nearby schools.

Infection started spreading to adjacent networks, like other schools:

Students at Harvard are connected to students at Columbia and Yale

Notice something?

Those schools are micronetworks, too. Infection spread throughout these networks, too.

Facebook scaled their growth by overlapping new markets that were interconnected.

Harvard > Ivy League Schools > Other Universities > High Schools > Planet

Facebook infected the entire planet.

And it all started from a micronetwork.

2) Create Content for Interconnected Segments

Some marketers acquire customers by creating content (e.g., blog articles).

Always consider the interconnectivity of these audiences. For example, you can categorize content into two types:

  • Horizontal. Topics that spread across domains
  • Vertical. Topics in a single domain

Consider the topics on my blog.

Over time, I noticed that vertical topics (e.g., pricing, UX) perform better than horizontal topics (e.g., choice, attention).

Horizontal topics (e.g., choice and attention) span across vertical domains (e.g., pricing and UX)

Sure, there might be search volume for horizontal topics. But this audience will be highly fragmented.

The 1,400 searches are comprised of people in marketing, public policy, economics, etc.

Thus, infection builds separately.

In vertical topics, however, most people share the same need. People searching for “pricing techniques” are more connected.

Pricing techniques has 1,200 searches (and most people are marketers)

Always consider the segmented nature of any topic or audience. Choose topics that will reach people who are interconnected.

3) Disperse Content in Interconnected Networks

Suppose that you want to reach photographers, so you write an article about photography on your website.

Which social network would be the best promotional vehicle?

Answer: Any network where photographers are interconnected.

Now, suppose that a photographer shares your article on Facebook.

That’s great, right?

Well, what are the typical connections for a photographer on Facebook? Maybe this:

Photographer is connected to family, friends, coworkers, and other photographers

When this photographer shares the article, only a few photographers will see this article:

Photographers are a small subset of their network

Instead, you need to target a network in which photographers are interconnected. Every time that someone shares the article, it will be transmitted to people who are susceptible to the infection.

In this case, LinkedIn or Reddit might be better.

Final Thoughts

Want more insights? I expand on this topic in my course on content marketing.