Content Marketing

Can the ‘Contagious Index’ Unlock the Secret to Viral Content?

What makes some social content go viral while others never get out of the gate? Wharton professor Jonah Berger and marketing agency DigitasLBi think they know.

As the author of the bestselling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger teamed up with DigitasLBi data scientists to explore the mechanics of virality and social transmission in the context of major brands. Together they have created the Contagious Index, an online social monitoring tool designed to measure the ability of brands to consistently produce viral hits on Facebook and Twitter.

According to Berger, many companies continue to be disappointed with the conversion rate between social marketing engagement and actual sales.

“There has been a lot of excitement over the years, but when brands look at the link between friends or followers and their sales, nothing is changing,” he said. “Just because something is viewed a million times doesn’t mean it has value.”

Rather, Berger believes the value is in person-to-person shares—and that means developing different metrics. Many brands and agencies assess social content one piece at a time instead of evaluating a company’s posts and presence based on cumulative effectiveness.

“We need to shift the discussion to a metric more focused on the things that will create loyalty on the individual level,” Berger said.

Armed with the Contagious Index’s open access tool, brands can gauge that level of success. A “Contagious Score” evaluates the effectiveness of social content through such filters as weekday versus weekend, paid versus organic, and likes versus shares. Companies can also compare their performance on social media to their peers.

As Jill Sherman, senior vice president of social strategy at DigitasLBi, said: “We wanted to build a tool that we could learn from by comparing similar brands in aggregate to find the nuances of why some can consistently maintain a high level of contagiousness.”

As a result of the project, DigitasLBi and Berger mined the data from January through September to identify which brands routinely deliver the “most contagious” social content.

On Facebook, Humans of New York and Mary Kay received perfect scores, while Simply Orange Juice scored 99. On Twitter, Jaguar, Oreo, Pokemon, Ralph Lauren, and the Detroit Tigers were the top-performing brands.

What do these scores tell us about the brands? According to the insights from the DigitasLBi data scientists, each of these companies has a unique approach to generating user engagement. In the case of Qatar Airways, for example, a promotional partnership with FC Barcelona drives its success. Qatar’s posts about the soccer team have earned it hundreds of thousands of likes. When soccer is involved, even a cover photo update for the Facebook page can drive hundreds of shares for the brand.

Delta, the top airline brand on Twitter, takes a different path. Delta’s tweets are largely breezy facts about the company, the flying experience, and aviation in general. Hashtags like #flysmart, #photoinflight, and #carryinguscloser encourage followers to interact with the brand, as does its participation in the #TBT (throwback Thursday) social trend, which Delta uses to showcase its storied history.

For Twitter’s most contagious sports team, the Detroit Tigers, shares are linked to a steady posting schedule. The brand tweets dozens of times per day and is particularly active in the hours right before, during, and after a game. Timeliness here is key, and the surge of interest and online activity for scheduled events is the perfect opportunity to generate user engagement.

Then there’s Humans of New York, which appeals to a love of storytelling by offering street photos and short profiles of interesting New Yorkers. The unique posts typically get tens of thousands of likes and hundreds of shares because they invite followers to contribute stories of their own.

“What we share is a signal of who we are,” Berger said.

All of these brands show that there are a number of factors that lead to top-grade social engagement. Berger sums up his formula for measuring virality with the acronym STEPPS: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories.

“These brands have figured out how to activate passion, humor, and inspiration in their customers,” Berger said of the most contagious companies. “They’re giving people useful information, tricks, and tips. They’re top of mind and tip of tongue.”

Sherman echoed this thought, arguing that being a contagious brand needs to commit to understanding the immediacy of the social ecosystem. “It’s thinking about community management through a content filter and capitalizing on the cultural zeitgeist,” she explained. “One of the biggest mistakes brands make is adopting a matching luggage approach to their social and content strategy. The brands doing well on the index look at their social channels every single day to see what’s going to resonate right now.”

Additionally, brands can’t simply craft content that makes them look good. Their social content should make the user look good too. Users aren’t interested in turning their social accounts into secondary brand pages, but they are interested in sharing content that reflects their identity and values.

“What we share is a signal of who we are,” Berger said.

For brands that want to make their content more viral, he strongly suggests developing a system that tracks what content is actually being seen. One bad habit he’s come across in the past is that brands equate content creation with content exposure, something that isn’t necessarily the case.

If there’s one nugget of truth that brand marketers should take away from the Contagious Index, though, it’s that followers and engagement don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Indeed, this is why understanding the qualities of viral content—and how to replicate viral success—is so vital to social marketing.

“Which would you rather have: one hundred dedicated followers who share one or two things on a regular basis, or ten thousand who never share anything?” Berger asked. “That’s what will move the needle at the end of the day in terms of sales.”

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