Viral marketing is the holy grail.

  • Everybody wants it.
  • Nobody knows how to do it.

But imagine if you COULD achieve it.

Just target a few central hubs. Then bam: exponential growth.

Message spreading throughout network

…but it’s not THAT easy, right?

Viral marketing has mysteries:

  • What type of content goes viral?
  • How do you gain traction?
  • Which “seeds” maximize diffusion?

Those questions irked me.

If I could solve those mysteries, then maybe — just maybe — I could reverse engineer virality.

So I spent weeks combing through academic research.

I read everything I could find. From network theory. To epidemiology. To other fields with complicated-sounding names.

Stuff like this:

Complicated Math

…which led to this:

Sleeping on my desk

But in the end — and 500+ articles later — the headaches were worth it.

I had an epiphany: the same factor causes most viral messages.

When I looked at starting points of viral messages, the same culprit was responsible. I call it a “micronetwork.”

If you understand this concept, you can control virality.

This article explains how.

Feel free to download the PDF so that you can reference it later.

Problems With the Common Strategy

When trying to go viral, marketers follow a common approach. They pitch “influencers” who have many connections.

Pitching influencer with large following of people

And it CAN work in some situations.

However, it restricts virality for 3 reasons:

Problem #1: Low Interconnectivity

The recipients aren’t connected to each other.

Low interconnectivity is worse for virality

Sure, they’re connected to the source — the influencer. But that’s not enough. To maximize diffusion, networks need interconnectivity (Lerman & Ghosh, 2010).

Networks with more interconnections are better for virality

When nodes are interconnected, infection builds WITHIN the network.

Suppose that Node A shares a message. Then Node B reshares it.

Three interconnected nodes

In that network, Node C is exposed twice.

Those repetitions trigger a snowball effect. With more exposures, there’s more infection. With more infection, there are more exposures.


Problem #2: Secondary Susceptibility

Secondary transmissions are outside the network, and thus less relevant

Without interconnectivity, nodes send messages OUTSIDE the network.

That might seem helpful — because your message is reaching new networks. But it’s usually detrimental. Those secondary recipients are often less susceptible.

Consider a photographer.

What’s the social circle for a typical photographer? Maybe this:

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

Now, suppose that you need to reach photographers for your business. So you write an article on photography.

And suppose that you convince an influencer — who has a following of photographers — to share it.

That’s great, right?

Well, it’s good. But it’s not great. The virality is limited.

When those photographers share the article, they’re sharing it with their social circle. And — as we just saw —their circle only has a few photographers.

Photographers are a small subset of their network

Thus, only a few people are susceptible.

Now, imagine if the influencer’s network were interconnected. If a photographer shares the article, then other photographers are exposed to it.

With an interconnected network, secondary recipients are relevant

Those nodes ARE susceptible. So infection builds WITHIN the network.

Problem #3: Weak Connections

which email are you more likely to open: email from boss or influencer

Influencers have MANY connections. But those connections are weak.

It’s not the end of the world if you ignore a blogger’s email.

(except my emails, of course)

To maximize virality, you need strong connections (Reagans & McEvily, 2003).

Those three problems — low interconnectivity, secondary susceptibility, and weak connections — can be resolved through micronetworks.

What is a Micronetwork?

Here’s my official definition.

MICRONETWORK — A dense network with strong interconnections

It has three pieces:

  • INTERCONNECTED: People know each other.
  • DENSE: It’s small. Most people know everyone in the network.
  • STRONG: People frequently interact. And the communication is important.

Viral messages usually originate from micronetworks.

And that makes sense. Based on epidemiology, widespread epidemics originate from small networks — like families (Ball, 1997).

When one person becomes infected, the immediate family becomes susceptible. Infection spreads easily because they live in the same house.

Then it triggers a snowball effect.

Once the family becomes infected, adjacent networks — like families across the street — become infected.

And it keeps spreading outward.

Family > Street> District > City > State

Suddenly the whole region becomes infected. And it all started from a micronetwork.

How to Use Micronetworks in Viral Marketing

Viral marketing is a HUGE topic. I compiled all my research into an online course. If you subscribe to my blog, I’ll send you a message when I open enrollment.

This article explains 3 strategies involving micronetworks.

Strategy #1: Target a Microsegment, Then Scale Outward

Typically, marketers choose a market. Then, they target segments within their market.

Target Market with 3 Segments

However, those “best practices” are restricting growth.

In large segments, most customers are disconnected. Infection builds separately within those segments.

Instead, adhere to epidemiology. Epidemics originate from tight clusters.

So don’t target random people throughout a segment. Target a small cluster within your segment. Then scale outward.

Tight interconnected cluster within a customer segment

Let’s see a real example…

Case Study: Facebook

Micronetworks caused the explosive growth of Facebook

When Zuckerberg launched Facebook, he didn’t target everyone. In fact, he didn’t target a “big” market.

Instead, he targeted a micronetwork. He targeted a small network with strong interconnections. He targeted Harvard students.

Harvard students are an interconnected network

That decision changed everything.

By targeting a micronetwork, word-of-mouth could spread quickly WITHIN that network. In 24 hours, half of Harvard signed up (The Guardian, 2007).

But here’s the key:

Micronetworks are connected to external networks.

Harvard students aren’t separated from the world. They have other friends.

When Facebook diffused among Harvard, other schools became susceptible.

Students at Harvard are connected to students at Columbia and Yale

Hmm, other schools? Aren’t those micronetworks too?

Aha. They are. Zuckerberg could replicate the same strategy in new schools.

And he did.

Facebook scaled their company by dominating an overlapping series of micronetworks.

On a broad scale…

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

Facebook was an epidemic. It infected the entire planet.

And it all started from a tiny micronetwork.

Strategy #2: Use Maven Groups to Promote Content

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell defines a maven.

MAVEN — Knowledgeable person with a passion for ideas and information

I’m extending that definition to groups.

MAVEN GROUP — A small group of people that crave knowledge in a domain

Examples include…

  • Small companies centered around a topic
  • Small organizations that share a mission
  • Small teams in a large organization

Essentially, maven groups are micronetworks. And they can trigger virality.

Case Study: How My Pricing Article Gained 325k Visitors

In 2015, I launched my article on pricing.

I had just launched my blog. So I was desperate for traffic. Any traffic.

To get visitors, I looked for small businesses that sold pricing software and services. And I sent them my article.

No catch. No hard sell. I was just giving value.

Since these companies were small, I aimed for 300 visitors. Maybe 400, if I was lucky.

In two days: the article surpassed 20,000 visitors.

Graph showing 20k views in one day

Today, it’s accumulated over 325,000 visitors.

And I never understood why. It never clicked until researching this article on viral marketing. Only two years later. Whoops.

Here’s what I surmised: those pricing companies were maven groups.

Essentially, the companies were micronetworks.

  • The companies were small. Everybody knew each other.
  • Employees interacted frequently.
  • Everyone shared the same connection: pricing.

Everyone lived and breathed pricing. They craved new and interesting ideas.

And that’s what I gave them.

I infected a critical node with new information. And — thanks to the structure of micronetworks —my message propagated.

Here’s a perfect illustration…

Small company looking at my pricing article

I sent my article to Arie Shpanya, the co-founder of Wiser. And he sent me a picture of his team discussing my article.

Wiser was a maven group. And I contacted MANY similar companies.

After infecting those tight-knit groups, the infection spread to nearby networks.

Employees at small companies are connected to employees at other companies

This concept is the polar opposite of the “standard” approach.

Most marketers target LARGE audiences with their outreach. It’s almost a no-brainer.

But is it really the best strategy?

Maven groups are more susceptible to infection. Therefore, you might gain more traction by pitching a larger quantity of small networks in your domain. Then scale outward.

Strategy #3: Target Customers With High Interconnectivity

I explained the importance of interconnectivity. When nodes are interconnected, infection builds WITHIN a network.

This concept applies to customer segments.

Your customers should interact. Frequently. Those interactions trigger word-of-mouth.

And this applies to content marketing.

Marketers create content to attract specific segments. However, topics vary in interconnectivity.

For example, I noticed a trend on my blog. Broad topics perform worse than concrete topics:

Broad: Choice, Attention | Concrete: Pricing, UX

Now, you can’t make conclusions from that data. There are many factors at play.

But indulge me.

I want to propose 2 categories of content:

  • HORIZONTAL TOPICS — Topics that spread across domains
  • VERTICAL TOPICS — Topics in a single domain

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

Horizontal topics span across domains. Choice psychology is relevant in any field. So it’s less cohesive.

Sure, those topics might have search volume:

Choice psychology has 1,400 monthly searches

However, you need to consider the interconnectivity among those people.

People searching for “choice psychology” have different needs. So they’re disconnected.

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)

Not everyone will be interconnected. But the connectivity is much higher in vertical topics. So word-of-mouth is easier (and your content is more likely to spread).

Thus, when choosing topics —or defining segments — always consider interconnectivity. Infection should build within a segment.

Final Thoughts

I usually pack a ton of information into my articles.

For this article, though, I wanted to focus on a central theme: small networks can make large impacts.

That concept is critical to viral marketing. And that concept changes the “best practices” in entrepreneurship.

However, that concept is only scratching the surface.

I packaged my leftover research into a large online course. You can subscribe to my blog to stay updated on future enrollments.