Monday, April 20, 2009

Why Do Certain Websites Go Viral?

Last week, Ashton Kutcher made national headlines by challenging CNN to see who could be the first Twitter user to have one million followers. Kutcher punked social media and won the challenge by being the first Tweeter to reach one million followers. Shortly afterwards, Oprah had Evan Williams, the founder of Twitter, on her show. The exposure introduced Twitter to Oprah's legion of viewers who no doubt learned about the micro-blogging service for the first time.

From March '08 to March '09, Twitter saw its traffic explode over 2500 percent (see chart below).



Earlier this year, fmylife.com .launched. The site lists short humorous entries about unfortunate circumstances. Anyone can anonymously contribute to the website.

In 4 months, the site went from zero viewers in January to 1.8 million unique visitors in April (see chart below). The website has already secured a book deal with Random House Books and there is probably a movie deal somewhere in the works.


Twitter and Fmylife are two examples about how websites can grow viral at different paces.

For over two years, Twitter has been a buzz word in the social media community. From the Virtual Worlds Conference to the Inbound Marketing Summit, social media experts discussed the importance of micro-blogging service and the potential marketing implications. It was a big deal when social media gurus, including Chris Brogan had over ten thousand followers. ...Let alone when Kutcher reached one million.

After the 2008 Presidential Election, the mainstream media started encouraging viewers to follower reporters, journalists and various celebrities on Twitter. Quickly interest in the website ignited and Twitter exploded into society's daily vernacular.

But what's the tipping point?

Is it the mainstream media that encourages viral growth?

Or is it something else?

Fmylife was launched four months ago and today averages over 1.8 million visitors. Those statistics took Twitter nearly two years to reach.

Clearly, the mainstream media is not the sole cause of fmylife's success. The viral growth occurred through a natural inclination for friends to share the website with their peers.

"Check this out!" "It's so funny!" The word-of-mouth happened through social media websites, including Facebook and MySpace, where users posted links to entries on the website, which encouraged friends to visit the website. ...And VoilĂ ! FML enters our modern vocabulary.

Today, visitors join Twitter, because it's the cutting edge social media website. It's cool to join. People visit FML, because it's funny. ...Cool and Funny? Is that all it takes? Maybe.

Ultimately, it comes down to the perceived viewpoints of ourselves. Do we view ourselves as being funny and cool? Do we want to reflect that feeling to the world and share content that reinforces that aspired feeling? The natural avoidance of cognitive dissonance or the uncomfortable feeling of holding two opposite feelings, is a reason why some websites experience viral growth and others do not.

Ask yourself two questions, when designing your next website with a viral focus:
1) What are the aspirational feelings of my target audience?
2) How can I reinforce those viewpoints and encourage them to share it with their friends?

Asking these questions moves the website beyond simply offering quality content. It helps encourage your target audience to share your content.

There are academic journals full of quality content, but have less then a few thousand subscribers. Why? Because sharing the content with friends does not increase most reader's perceived feelings about themselves. They are simply satisfied with reading the content and discussing it in small circles.

However, unique marketing books, like Seth Godin's Purple Cow, make it on a bestsellers list, because readers are encouraged to share the book's innovation and coolness. A reader's perception of innovation and coolness are increased, when he or she shares the book with a friend and cognitive dissonance is avoided.

As with websites and books, the importance of creating content that is worth sharing to augment a person's perceived value of self will help encourage a brand, product, or company to experience viral growth.


1 comment:

Dan said...

This is an important post. In particular, it helps bosses who may not understand the importance of social media get a glimpse of something they can understand.

Thanks for the insightful and useful information.