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The Content Conundrum

“Let make this go viral!”

“This is highly shareable!”

Common cries heard in boardrooms up and down the land. I’ve certainly heard it said (I may even have said it myself, once upon a time). Ever since some babies roller-skated their way around the world, marketers have been chasing the dream of creating a piece of content that can be seen by millions without a dollar being spent on paid media.

And to the lay person, they seem to be succeeding. Every day we hear about a new content piece generating millions of views, and we see a new TV countdown show of ‘Top 20 YouTube Clips of Cats Riding Household Appliances’ or some such.

But here’s the thing. Viral videos are a myth.

Or at least the effects are wildly over-stated. Simply creating a piece of great content, shoving it on YouTube/Facebook and sitting back and waiting for the masses to share is likely to result in disappointment. Even if it’s a super-cute video of a hamster eating a tiny burrito.

And we know this because of science. Specifically, a rigorous study undertaken by Dr Karen Nelson Field and colleagues from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, at the University of South Australia. The study is detailed in her book Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing (you can read a good summary here).

I first became aware of the study when I saw Dr Nelson Field speak at the MSiX conference here in Sydney in September, and pleasingly have subsequently start to see the findings being quoted more widely, including by content creation specialists (most recently by Unruly, programmatic video distributors).

To summarise, the research found distribution is the most critical factor driving sharing of online video content. The quality of content itself (in terms of engagement) only gives an incremental benefit beyond the distribution and seeding of that content (i.e. how much money and effort you spend on generating views, as opposed to ‘organic reach’ or sharing).

After two years of work, five different data sets, more than 1000 videos, nine individual studies and with a large team of researchers Dr Nelson Field found that on average social videos were shared by around 1 in 24 viewers. And there is not much deviation from this norm, as you can see from the chart below (apologies for poor quality photo from conference, annoyingly the slides from MSiX still haven’t been shared…)

Viral Video Sharing Rates - Surprisingly Consistent

Viral Video Sharing Rates – Surprisingly Consistent

Surprisingly, even the multiple award-winning, and seemingly widely-shared, Dove Real Beauty Sketches had a ratio of 30:1 of views to shares – slightly worse than the average. The sixty million plus views were a result of extensive seeding and distribution – in much the same way as buying a load of TV spots would have done (though admittedly probably for a much lower cost).

But, you may ask, what of those content pieces that do perform better than average in driving shares? What determines this?

The key drivers seem to be twofold: emotional impact and social motivations (i.e. what impact does sharing the content have on the person’s desired self-image). In effect, does it move me and will it say something positive about me to my friends and followers?

And so we come back to our old behavioural economics friends, system 1 and system 2 thinking. System 1 being our instinctive emotional response, and system 2 more rational and considered – when we get a reaction from both we are more likely to hit the share button.

The research found that the content that most consistently drove greater sharing behaviour were stories of personal triumph (other creative ‘devices’ varied in effectiveness). These positive emotional responses led to greater sharing (although still only incremental) – a recent example being this video from Animals Australia (whilst the content was clearly created for a very low budget, I’d love to know how much they spent on distribution). I’ve written before about the ‘power of cute’, and this research seems to corroborate it’s power in generating organic reach.

Interestingly, there were slight differences in the emotional stimuli that impacted sharing behaviour in different countries. Unruly say that France was the only country where they have found negative emotional reactions to content prompted sharing more than positive emotions. Coincidentally, the very next day I met with Buzzfeed (the social content aggregator site) who told me they also found the most popular articles in France differed hugely from their sites elsewhere. Cuteness doesn’t play with the French clearly – they prefer to get their social kicks from gritty brutal reality.

Another critical finding was that the level of emotional arousal, and therefore ‘virality’, was entirely independent of the level of branding in the content i.e. how obviously ‘commercial’ it was, how many times the product is shown etc. Again, traditional wisdom is that commercially created video content needs to be more subtly branded (or completely devoid of it) in order to be effective.

So, despite all the industry brouhaha around “content” – are we to conclude that branded content works in exactly the same way as “traditional” advertising?

Most important is getting people to actually see the content. Tick.

Emotional engagement is required to get people to hit the share button – surely in much the same way as a great ad generates ‘water cooler’ conversation (i.e. traditional word of mouth). Tick.

And people don’t care if the content is heavily branded or not. Well, you very rarely see an unbranded ad, so…Tick. Full house.

Unruly summarise it as: “Distribution is king. And content is a highly emotional queen.”

In most parts of the world, that queen is inspirational – like our dear old Queen Elizabeth II.

In France, she’s much darker. More like Cersei Lannister.


This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on Richard’s blog: