In this monthly series, EM brings you tips and tricks from pros and experts who eat social media marketing for breakfast. So eat up, and check us out on Twitter @eventmarketer and Facebook.com/eventmarketer for more.
This month, we’re going to talk about viral content, and how to better the chances that your brand’s photos and videos might become the next grumpy cat. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Major Paulo Shakarian, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at West Point, and the primary investigator for the Algorithmic Network Science Group. We went looking for him in his undisclosed location in upstate New York because of a paper he recently published that identifies a new algorithm for making content go viral online. Shakarian says, if used correctly, his algorithm makes it easier to take a piece of good content viral than it is to keep it quiet. It’s been written about in the “MIT Technology Review,” and the crux of the research is in how best to identify a “seed group” of people in a given network and get them to disseminate your content. If you get your stuff to “infect” the right group of people, and your stuff is good enough, they’ll take it to the “viral threshold,” where it takes on its own life and spreads across 80 to 90 percent of the targeted network. That threshold is usually between 10 and 20 percent of users.
We’re not going to get too into the math and statistics of this because you can read the research yourself (http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.2963), but the professor sat down with us for a few minutes and gave us five tips on how best to leverage his revolutionary new algorithm to bring your content to viral proportions.
1. Mediocrity Doesn’t Go Viral
It feels like the constant theme in these tips, doesn’t it? Look, if your content isn’t any good, it won’t go viral. Unless it’s really bad. And you don’t want that kind of attention, do you? I didn’t think so. Shakarian says, “What we developed, and our simulations assumed, is the content is good and people will want to spread it.”
2. Overlap is More Important than Size of Following
Now, many social-centric event marketers might agree that getting Kanye to tweet your video is a win, but Shakarian says that isn’t necessarily true. More important, he says, is the number of overlapping followers in your seed group. What that means is that the people you seed your content to should have a good percentage of followers in common. Why? “Every individual in a socia
l network will tend to adopt behaviors and trends if enough of their friends adopt those behaviors first,” he says. “According to the research we’ve seen, the probability of someone adopting [or reporting] increases with the number of other people who have already done it.” Basically, the followers of seeded “influencers” need to overlap in such a way that each follower sees as many as possible mentions of a piece of content. They don’t need to see Kanye post it, they need to see a mass of anyone they follow post it.
3. A Sizable Seed Group Grows Viral Faster
Shakarian and his students ran dozens of simulations, with hundreds of variables and combinations and then backtracked those sims to find out where everything started. When the seed group was as small as .5 to 2 percent of a network, it took a long time to build to the 10 to 20 percent penetration threshold, but then it would quickly jump to adoption rates of 50 to 90 percent. Huge. What was interesting was that they found that simply starting with a 10 to 20 percent seed group skipped the slow build. The content just jumped straight to the explosion, or viral, stage. “Once you know where your adoption threshold is, and you seed your starting group to that level, you’re almost guaranteed to get to that 80 or 90 percent adoption rate, across the whole network,” he says.
4. Critical Mass is Critical
Shakarian calls the penetration threshold the critical mass of adoption. In short, if the number of people who’ve seen and passed along your content reaches that number, your content will be able to grow exponentially. So, he advises, “If you infect your chosen network up to that critical mass number—the key jumping point that leads to that virality—you only need to rely on one step in making your content viral.”
5. You Have to Show Your Work
OK, with this one, math counts, so bring out your data folks. The math is in the paper, but the key to it is running simulations and tests until you know exactly where your thresholds and critical mass numbers are for the social networks you plan to work with. You can’t really get started until you plug real numbers into the variables and discover what the best starting point strategy for the given program will be. Take out the old slide rule, ‘cause the age of casting a net and hoping for the best is over.