The Ideology behind Viral Media

The Ideology behind Viral Media

By Herry Pierre-Louis

February 9th, 2011

What makes a product viral? How is virality quantified? Why do some ideas that seem great flop, while some ideas that seem silly blow up? These were just a few of the questions answered at Ultra Light Startups’ Social Media Week event, Engineering Viral Media. A reoccurring theme throughout the panel was the notion that viral media is nothing new.

Viral, or Word-Of-Mouth marketing, has been around way before the internet was created. The panel explained that the same elements that make a product viral through word-of-mouth are the elements found in the viral digital products of today. The question that many digital entrepreneurs and business owners asked was, “how can we use the internet’s current digital media platforms to make our products viral?”

The event started off with a start-up pitch contest featuring aspiring entrepreneurs. Each contestant was given 60 seconds to present their website, explain the functionality of their product and support the claim that their product and revenue model could be profitable. The pitches were followed by two to three questions from the audience regarding the platforms viability. The winners of the contest were decided through Twitter messages using the hashtag #ultralight. Bob Petrie won the contest with his website and app, Honestly, Now, which plays on the “Hot-or-Not” platform, allowing users to “rate” other users on a variety of topics such as appearance or hygiene. The runners-up included Corey Maass with his event planning Cue App and Baruch Herzfeld with his mobile radio platform, Zenofon.

Although these entrepreneurs were enthusiastic, it was clear from the audience’s questions that many of these pitches lacked viable revenue models. This provided the ideal transition for Ultra Light’s panel of experts to answer the question of how one can turn an idea into a profitable, viral business. The panel included Sawhorse Media’s Greg Galant, NYU Professor Adam Pennenberg, Buzzfeed and Huffington Post’s Jonah Peretti and Hashable’s Michael Yavonditte.

Pennenberg started the conversation off by comparing the virality of Tupperware to what we know as viral media today. He explained that Tupperware was one of the first and most successful viral companies. The reason its campaign was so successful is because Tupperware built trust within its community. Consumers have to trust a product or idea before they start spreading it virally. Many ideas sound great within a certain group, but the only way it can become viral is if it is broadened to a larger group or people.

The panel also explained how a viral campaign is engineered after a product is deemed trustworthy. Yavonditte explained that providing users with the tools to share their product is the most important part of a viral campaign. The idea is that every time a user is exposed to a certain product, they are subsequently exposing their group of friends to that product as well.

The panel answered many questions about engineering a successful viral campaign and measuring the virality of a campaign, but it is clear that viral media in the digital age is still an ambiguous theory. It is easy to say that an idea has to be trusted before it can become viral, but the sociology behind this trust is still unknown. My suggestion for anyone planning to start a viral media campaign or start-up web application is to just try it out. Of course there are necessary steps and guidelines entrepreneurs should follow when creating a campaign, but the lack of a substantial “rule list” allows for the constant flow of ideas. Who knows, maybe your idea will get you on Ultra Light’s next panel.