In this environment - teeming with unpredictable channels of discussion, and characterised by the figure of the intimidatingly well-informed consumer - brands have resorted to a strategy which, unfortunately, is largely founded in myth. This is the theory of so-called “viral” marketing, which, in the words of Derek Thompson, “assumes that simple word of mouth can easily take a small idea and turn it into a phenomenon”.
Why is the “viral” marketing theory so appealing to brands? Simply put, the theory comfortingly implies that one needn't invest in costly distribution strategies to achieve success; instead, all a company needs to do is create an inherently attractive product or campaign, and then sit back while consumers spread it like a virus.
But do ideas really “go viral”? Unfortunately, as Derek Thompson writes in his new book The Hit Makers: Why Things Become Popular, “the answer appears to be a simple no”. In a 2012 study conducted by the search-engine Yahoo, millions of twitter posts were studied to trace the extent to which messages go viral. More than ninety percent of the posts did not diffuse at all; only a tiny one percent of posts were shared more than seven times. Nothing, however, went fully “viral”.
How come some content becomes so overwhelmingly popular, then, shared and liked millions of times over? The answer is not that the content is shared between consumers like a virus, but that many consumers respond to a single source commanding a large audience (such as The New York Times, or Kim Kardashian's Instagram account). The lesson to learn here, from Derek Thompson and others who are beginning to question the wisdom of “viral” marketing, is that brands need to work on maximising their audience instead of investing all their energy in quirky, “viral”-worthy content which, it is unrealistically hoped, will be shared explosively and exponentially simply by virtue of its quality.