Spreadable vs Viral: What it actually means for content

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Recently at a SXSW panel, the authors of the book Spreadable Media were discussing the future of internet media and how “viral” content is actually not viral at all. The panelists argued that virality (in the traditional medical sense) is passive — a host doesn’t choose to contract a virus and doesn’t choose to spread it through his body. The virus spreads by its own means. They made the point that “viral” content and media (think Gangnam Style) are actually active choices; that virality in media doesn’t just happen. A choice is made by a user to share that specific piece of media within their own networks.

We make choices as human beings about what content is worth passing on. Virality is a choice with a focus on collective agency: a common togetherness and solidarity between sharers of similar content.

People feel empowered through common themes and this collective agency is a very powerful thing — consider when the Mitt Romney Campaign’s “binders full of women” situation hit Twitter. Major media covering the event in real life in question didn’t report on this issue, but after the social sphere exploded in outrage and thousands of meme variations were created, every major media source was forced to cover this as news from the campaign.

This doesn’t mean that truly viral media doesn’t exist — in fact truly viral media is common practice on many social media platforms today and has been a common marketing tactic to spread the word about free services. Many web-based email clients attach a tag at the bottom of emails saying “Want a free email account? Click here.” The user of the email client didn’t select to spread this message; the act of sending a simple email actually created a viral environment. Facebook applications can post things through your account to spread their messages, provided you’ve given them advance permissions. These truly viral environments have also become the source of many privacy issues, which implies that people don’t mind spreading content when they choose to, but reject the idea of content being spread on its own.

So what does this actually mean for us as content curators and creators? What can we learn from this concept? A few things:

  • Know your audience. The power of sharing is quickly catching up to the power of content. Understand the people you are talking to as much as you possibly can. Create a character sketch of your ideal reader. Name them.  Always ask yourself how’d you’d message your content with this character in mind and treat your character like a real person.
  • Recognize your audience’s power of choice. There is a plethora of underlying psychology and cultural traits that drive a person’s decision to share your content. If your content is not performing as you’d like it to, test your assumptions about who you’re talking to and adjust your messaging.
  • Understand the themes driving the sharing of content in your space. There are major, overarching similarities between people and causes. In the example of Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” above, the themes unifying the voices of the hundreds of thousands of people sharing and creating relevant content were “women’s rights” and a little bit of sardonic humor. Speaking in the same language as the people you are trying to reach is incredibly important.

Creating and curating “spreadable” content is a more effective long-term strategy than trying to think “viral.” Spreadable content will effectively feed an aligned, collective audience and grow your presence online.


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Allison Jones
11 years ago

Great perspective! It reminds me of Coca-Cola’s Cotent 2020 plan. Their goal was to create “liquid and linked content”: Ideas that are so contagious they cannot be controlled (liquid) and are innately related to coca-cola’s business and branding objectives (linked). Ensuring that we’re aware not only of what our audience wants but also how this related to great organizational objectives is key.

Gregg Cooke
Gregg Cooke
11 years ago

When I think of “viral adoption” (of software, not content, but similar arguments apply), I think in terms of the original medical definition of “viral” in that the software hasn’t become viral until I cannot avoid adopting it. But this is actually a negative of the medical definition: I can’t avoid “infection” (i.e., adoption) because infection brings too many benefits to ignore. This is quite a different viewpoint than the article and it presumes (possibly incorrectly) that the key dynamic is negative (“if you don’t adopt, you miss out”) rather than positive (“look how cool this is! let’s adopt it!”).… Read more »

Sam Ford
11 years ago

Really appreciate your sharing your take on our talk, Clair. From my perspective, you captured some of the key points we hoped to make at SXSW. Gregg…your reaction was much like ours…that this rather negative theory of infection isn’t one that explains the reasons people choose to pass something along. We used “spreadability” in the book not because we wanted to create a new buzzword but as a means to distinguish against “viral” and “stickiness.” Sharable captures the same essential elements…which is to say that the content has the potential to be shared, but it’s ultimately up to the “sharer.”… Read more »

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