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It’s the Holy Grail for marketers and content makers – producing content that goes viral. But what makes something shareable? What are the psychological triggers that evoke sharing motives, and how are they activated?
Dr Brent Coker is a lecturer in the Department of Management and Marketing, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne.
He’s spent the past decade studying viral marketing, and is the author of the book “Going Viral”, the culmination of a seven-year study on the psychology of building a strong brand and customer engagement.
Dr Brent Coker sat down for a Zoom chat with Dr Andi Horvath.
Brent, what's your area of expertise? Describe it to us, as if you're at a barbecue.
I think I would say viral marketing is what I spend most of my time researching and reading and, of course, watching memes is one of my hobbies. I guess, one of the unusual things I do is I collect memes. I have gigabytes of memes on my computer. I've always been fascinated by them and why certain things get shared more than others.
You've written a book called 'Going Viral'. Who was that book for and what's its main insights?
Yes. So, I've always had this idea of - I guess many academics have this idea of wanting to get their research out there to a wider audience. When it's stuck in academic journals, as you probably know, the audience is limited. So, that was the idea behind it, I wanted to publish everything I knew about going viral, what makes content go viral. So, I guess, that was the idea behind it. The title of the book, the publishers wanted to call it “The 12 secrets of getting your message spread wide and far,” or something like this, but essentially there are three parts to it that make things get shared. So, it's important to realise, I think, that why things go viral, essentially, is essentially behind this idea that people share things. If something isn't shareable, it won't go viral. So, the book is really about what makes people share content.
What is one of the things that makes something shareable? I mean, it obviously resonates with our souls, but how do you articulate something that captures the imagination that makes us share it?
Well, there are three things. The first thing is called self-enhancement. So, this is something that's deeply rooted in psychology and everybody does this, which essentially means that people will share information with others if they know that they can get some kind of positive feedback, which is usually recognition and respect. So, I guess, some of the early studies that we did were looking at how students, young people, share content online. One of the things that we noticed quite early on is that they post something on the internet and if it doesn't get any engagement within minutes, oftentimes they delete it. That was intriguing for us, why are they doing that? The expectation for sharing content if often that other people are going to react in a positive way. In social media that usually means engagement, likes, comments, shares and so on. So, that's the first part.
The second part is emotions. Many others have been studying this for a while, this is not really new. I guess, what I brought to the table is that if you mix emotions and content it seems to have an exponential effect, in terms of motivating people to want to share it. So, very often, moral content makes people feel something, in other words, it evokes some kind of emotion. But it's not easy to make people laugh out loud, or cry with tears of joy. So, one of the shortcuts to that is by mixing emotions. One way, for example, mixing negative emotions with positive emotions, or the other way around, seems to enhance that effect.
The last element of the framework is something called affinity. I guess, the best way to describe that is deep, deep relevance. So, there's always something that people care deeply about. I guess, it's that feeling of, let's say, you're driving in your car and a song comes on the radio and it's a song that you haven't heard for a long time, but it has that effect on you of, oh, wow, this song, and you turn it up and it makes you feel in a strong kind of a way. That's close to what affinity is. It's something that people - they care about a lot. It's deep, deep relevance. So, those are the three elements.
I imagine this area of going viral is of real interest to various industries and people who sell products, goods and services.
Yeah, they are. One of the things behind this is word of mouth. I think most companies understand that the best type of marketing there is, is word of mouth, nowadays. In other words, these are consumers telling other consumers about how great your brand is, rather than the brand telling consumers how great they are. There have been quite a few studies done on this and all of them point to this idea that consumers trust each other. It used to be friends, family and colleagues, back in the old days before the internet came about, but nowadays, people listen to complete strangers online and they believe what strangers are saying about brands. I mean, let's face it, before we buy anything of value nowadays, most of us go online and we read reviews about how great it is.
This is having an interesting effect on how consumers respond to traditional brand advertising. They've become a little jaded in a sense, less trusting of what brands are saying. I mean, consumers know instinctively that brands are going to say that they are the best, because they want to sell their products. So, consumers more and more are turning to this word-of-mouth idea. I think, so viral marketing is based on this idea that people are sharing information with others and that's why things get spread wide and far and diffused, as we say, particularly through the internet, through social media channels, is essentially the same as classic word of mouth. I think that's where the interest from brands comes into this, is they're interested to know, well, okay, I understand that traditional advertising has a place, but I want to make better use of online resources, particularly social media. The best way to do that is to design content that gets shared.
Brent, you've probably seen lots of changes in consumer behaviour over the years as you've studied them. What other changes have you seen?
Well, I think one of the biggest changes we've seen is this idea of controversial advertising. So, traditionally, this has been a way for brands to get noticed out in the marketplace is to be controversial. One of the early pioneers of this was Calvin Klein, for example. They had a big billboard set up in Times Square advertising their underwear. It got everybody talking, back in the day when it was a bit risqué to do that kind of thing and it did the brand a lot of good, in terms of word of mouth and people talking about it. The thing is, nowadays, when it comes to social media, controversial doesn't always work. So, we make a distinction between controversial advertising and shareable advertising, or value advertising.
I have a great story to illustrate this. So, I think it was about 2011, when I first started looking at how to mix emotions and how that drives engagement online, I got a call one evening from a woman in Sydney and she worked for a small boutique advertising agency. She'd just taken on a new client and this client was an underwear brand. So, she thought, well, this is great, I can do something online and really help them. She'd promised them that she could make something go viral for them. That's why she was calling me. The problem was, she'd made something, put it online and it wasn't going viral. In fact, it had hardly any views and shares at all and she was a bit panicked and she wanted to know if I could fix it.
Now, unfortunately if something isn't already getting high engagement online, it can't be fixed. I didn't tell her that though, I didn't want to break her heart, but I promised to have a look and I was intrigued about what was going wrong here. What it was was it was like a classic underwear-type campaign. She had this old-school marketing thought that sex sells, right. Now that's one example of something that absolutely does not work anymore. So, just quickly, it was this idea of this woman in lingerie and she was walking through her apartment. It was a clever idea that they used to use where you upload a photo of yourself and that gets included in the story somehow.
So, what it was she was flicking through this magazine, she stopped on a centrefold. The camera zooms in and it's a picture of me wearing the underwear, kind of thing. Now, the thing is, why that wasn't getting any traction is that people don't like sharing awkward things online. So, even though it's controversial, it won't get shared, because let's face it, think about who we're connected to online, it's not just our friends, it is our relatives and our parents and perhaps work colleagues and so on. So, people care quite a lot about what they share and what they don't share online. I think that's driving a lot of modern engagement, content-marketing techniques, I guess, it's moving away from controversy and moving more towards high-engagement kind of content.
Could we use viral marketing to save the planet, one campaign at a time?
I think we can, yeah. I mean, there have been several examples of this lately, actually. One of the things I've noticed with the Effie Awards, for example, the Effie Awards are one of our biggest awards trophies out there in the world. If you're a marketer you want to definitely get a prize in the Effies. It's one thing I've noticed in the top 10 last year was that about seven of them were using some kind of social impact campaign, in other words, doing something good in the world. I think there's a definite trend towards that. Some of them are calling it the Greta effect, after Greta Thunberg gained popularity, the young Swedish girl who was at the United Nations, making that passionate speech about how bad the planet is and how we need to change it. The house is on fire, she said.
So, we've seen a lot of brands shift towards that way of doing things. There's one, for example, who were looking at - I think they were a not-for-profit - they were concerned with the amount of plastic in the ocean, a very common issue out there. What they decided to do, there's a certain part in the ocean where there's so much plastic that it makes this kind of island that all floats together in the currents. What they did was they turned this plastic island into a country and they sold passports and they developed a currency for this little country. That was extremely popular with people applying for citizenship to this country and they were using the proceeds to clean up the world.
But there have been many other profit-making companies that have done similar things. Domino's Pizza in the US, for example, did something very clever. They noticed that delivering their pizzas, they were getting shaken up in the box and by the time they arrived they were a mess. That was because in many parts of the US, I think it started off in Detroit, in many suburbs, the state of the roads was so bad because the local councils were bankrupt, they couldn't afford to fix them. So, what Domino's did was decided to fix the roads themselves. They started off in the worst areas, they put concrete over the pothole and then they put their brand on top of that.
So, that kind of thing went viral, as well. Everybody was hugely impressed with that. There have been so many examples of that lately, of brands doing similar things. So, giving back to the community is not only good for the brand, but everyone seems to talk about it. So, that's one way to go viral, I think.
It's good to see companies working for good and not evil, however, companies are there to part us from our money. Are there ethical concerns about how companies use research about consumer behaviour?
Yeah, I guess that's the dark side of marketing, isn't it? Ultimately, they want you to get your wallet out, because they want your money. But, I think, one of the things that we're working on at the moment is this framework, we're calling it brand empatica. It's one way of giving back, because I think consumers are getting more and more aware of this idea. Again, I think it's related to the Greta effect, that, okay, the world is a mess at the moment, in terms of climate, what impact are brands having on that? Brands convince us that we need a new shirt, we need a new car, we need these new things, when actually, we don't. Psychological obsolescence, is what it's called. Consumers are starting to look at brands in a way that's how are you contributing to the state of the world?
For that reason, I think that is driving brand motives to be better citizens in a way and so the Domino's' example. There is another one, an interesting case in France, Carrefour supermarkets. They had a law in France that certain crop strains were illegal, because France was trying to protect its food supply, its food bowl. So, therefore, farmers had to grow certain strains that were high-yield and drought-resistant and so on. So, there were many crop strains and breeds of vegetables and fruit that were becoming extinct, because it was no longer legal to make these. It was also restricting the variety of food that they were allowed to sell in the supermarkets.
So, what Carrefour did is they started selling these illegal fruits and vegetables and growing them through black supermarkets, they were calling them. The cost to them was the legal battle, fighting the government against this legislation, this archaic legislation that made these fruits and vegetables illegal and they won. They actually turned the law around and got things changed. Again, everyone was talking about it and that's great for the brand. But it's giving back to society and I think that's key.
This is very interesting research. So, what lured you to this interesting area of consumer behaviour?
Well, I think, getting back to your earlier point about how far - well, how ethnical is it? I mean, there is a lot of psychology that goes on in marketing nowadays, in terms of manipulating consumers. Is it manipulation? How fair is that? So, part of this, I think, is using it for good, in a way. I'm intrigued by - where my research has shifted now is towards this idea, I'm calling it brand empatica, which is, I think - and I'm not sure if made that word up, empatica, or if it's actually Latin, but it means empathy. You can see the similarity there.
So, if you can sell consumers products, by tugging on psychological strings to make them do that and perhaps they otherwise wouldn't have purchased that product, can you do the same for making the world a better place? I think, as marketers, that's one of the - I don't know if it's a problem, but it's the dark side of marketing. We're teaching the students, for example, how to sell products, but should we be teaching them how to do that in a sustainable kind of a way? Ultimately, should we really be convincing consumers that that outfit that they were wearing last season is now not suitable and they need to update that and buy something new? What impact does that have on the planet?
So, I think, I'm intrigued by this idea of these brands that are coming out now and they're leading the way and there's many of them, all over the world, that are leading the way, in terms of giving back, just as much as they're taking. So, it's a balancing act at the moment. There's some brands that are doing it better than others.
It's sounding like to me what you want to activate in society is ethical marketing. If you had a platform now and unlimited funding, what would you do?
Well, I think one of the things is that many brands don't really get it, I suppose. It takes them a while to figure it out. We're living in a different economy at the moment. I think it's going to be like this for a while now. One of the things is that many brands have to shift their operations online. The classic model of selling offline is becoming increasingly obsolete, year after year. Certainly, with advertising spend, it seems that digital marketing is increasing more than other forms of advertising. I suppose, many brands go online, they spend a lot of money on online advertising, without having really much understanding of how to build a positive community, I guess, online, yeah. So, I think, that's one of the things I like to focus on in my classes, for example, is how to do things in an ethical way.
One of the issues online, for example, is misinformation and disinformation, we were quite interested in that for a while, is why do consumers believe certain things and not others. It seems to be very easy to pull the wool over consumers' eyes when they're online, more than offline, because essentially what we've got is a screen and visual input and that's pretty much it. There are a lot of scams out there, but I don't think there needs to be. I think brands can be good citizens and be profitable and give back to society. If they're profitable, it creates jobs. So, I think, I like to look at it from the positive point of view, rather than the negative - let's try and extract as much money as we can, more towards let's be good out there.
What are some of the misconceptions that people have about viral marketing?
Brands go straight into this idea of, well, what can we do that's really, really crazy and what can we do to get noticed through that? The problem with doing that is that some of the craziest things out there reflect negatively on the brand. It's a bit of a balancing act. Benetton, for example, are really famous for creating ultra-controversial content. They had one, for example, it was a Photoshopped image of the Catholic Pope, kissing a Muslim leader. It was like a full-on kiss and a hug, like this. Obviously, that offended a lot of people. In fact, the Vatican sued Benneton to get these images removed. But that's very old-school, that's the old-school way of thinking.
One of the dangers of doing that is this thing called brand association. So, consumers form these impressions about brands from every touchpoint that they have. It could be how clean your van is, or what your uniforms look like, or how friendly your customer service staff are. It's all of these things that combine and create this image of what your brand is about. So, if your advertising is based on stirring controversy like that, you've got to think about what impression is that going to make on our brand, as a whole, in terms of how we're thought of? So, we often think about before we create any content is what are the reasons why people won't share? That's the first thing we look at. It's surprising, there are often many reasons why people don't share. Then we flip the coin and think about, okay, well, what are the things that people are going to want to share about this?
Quite often we rely on intrigue, actually. Intrigue is intriguing. Back in the day, well, one of the most viral toys, or one of the most viral things ever, is the Rubik's Cube. This was way back in the 70s, before the internet even existed. I think there were 350 million of them sold. Somebody did this study once and concluded that one in seven people on the planet have actually tried to solve it. So, it's interesting, thinking about, well, there's something that's gone viral, but why? It seems to be based on this idea of intrigue. When we look into that, what is intrigue? In psychology, there's this idea that people need to finish the story. They don't like it when the story's unfinished. I use the example of you're lying in bed at night and you hear a bump. I mean, you're not going to go to sleep very easily unless you get up out of bed and go see what that bump was, in other words, you finish the story.
So, we rely on that kind of thing when we're creating content, as well, is creating that intrigue. We see that pattern in super-virals. So, super-virals is content that has over one million shares. So, when we look at how viral something is, the metric that we look at is shares, not likes. We find that pattern very often actually is this idea of beginning with intrigue and then we have this spike kind of story framework where emotions get injected into the story over time and there's a big resolution at the end of the story.
Brent, next time we're online and we see something that we want to share to one of our friends, what would you like us to think about?
Well, I think quite often people think about what's the reaction I'm going to get? There's this idea of self-enhancement. People want recognition and respect. It used to be, when I was on Facebook, I'm not a big fan of Facebook lately, but I used to use Facebook quite a lot. The reason why I don't use it that often nowadays is it's a time suck. I find myself spending so much time on there, browsing other people's photos and you've got to ask yourself, well, why am I doing that? But I used to think that, okay, well, why are my friends sharing these photos of them on holiday and doing these fantastic things in life? Are they trying to make me jealous?
It made me realise that, no, people don't share content to make other people jealous, what they're after is actually fundamental, is recognition and respect and that's through likes and comments. They want those love hearts and those positive comments and the, oh, lucky you, that looks amazing type comments, because it makes them feel good. So, actually, when people share content, it's not for others, it's for themselves.
Dr Brent Coker, thank you.
Thanks for having me.
Thank you to Dr Brent Coker, lecturer in the Department of Management and Marketing, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne. And thanks to Dr Andi Horvath.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on October 16, 2020. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2020, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
Dr Brent Coker collects memes.
A lecturer in the Department of Management and Marketing, Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Melbourne, he says “I spend most of my time researching and reading and, of course, watching memes is one of my hobbies.”
Dr Coker has always been fascinated by why certain things get shared more than others.
“There is a lot of psychology that goes on in marketing nowadays. Quite often we rely on intrigue. But what is intrigue?” he asks.
“In psychology, there’s this idea that people need to finish the story. They don’t like it when the story’s unfinished.”
He uses the example of lying in bed at night when you hear a bump.
“You’re not going to go to sleep very easily unless you get up out of bed and go see what that bump was, so in other words, you finish the story. We rely on that kind of thing when we’re creating content, as well, creating that intrigue,” Dr Coker says.
He notes we see this pattern in super-viral content, that is content that has over one million shares. Dr Coker explains that when looking at how viral something is, the metric is shares, not likes.
“We find that the pattern very often begins with intrigue and then we have this spike in the story framework where emotions get injected over time and then there’s a big resolution at the end of the story.”
Episode recorded: October 16, 2020.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi-Vann Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner image: Getty Images