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Is Viral Content Still Meaningful?

June 24, 2014 Social Media 0 Written by James O'Connor

When you were just a small child, someone taught you how to share. Learning to let someone else play with your favourite toy was an important part of your socialisation, one that prepared you for a life of little compromises.

The importance of sharing has not been lost on publishers, brands and communications professionals. They have loosened their grip on their intellectual property, embracing the fact that their content will be commented on, appropriated, remixed and – if they’re lucky – shared with other readers and consumers.

Some content makers have gone so far as to focus on shareability above everything else. It doesn’t matter how good their content is, or even what it is about, as long as it’s viewed, tweeted and shared on Facebook. David Spark, author of “Hazardous to Your Social Media Health: 50 Previously Condoned Behaviours We No Longer Recommend”, has had enough of this obsession with “going viral”:

“The reason everyone wants viral content is they want heavy distribution without having to pay for it. Who wouldn’t want that? But planning for viral often leads you down a completely inappropriate path where you look for ways to “game the system” and not necessarily create videos [or other content] that are appropriate for your business.”

One common mistake is to prompt the reader to share content before they’ve even had a chance to see what it is. Pay with a Tweet gives people access to content or a product after they have tweeted or posted about it. It seems to work for certain content chunks – singles from forthcoming albums, games that make up part of a broader marketing campaign and ebooks. That is, exactly the kind of content a producer would happily give away in exchange for some free promotion.

The problem with systems like Pay with a Tweet is that they don’t reward good content with shares – they ask for consumers to pay in advance for content of an unknown quality by sharing it. More than 6 million people may have paid for something with a tweet, but their posts don’t amount to real endorsements. Instead they are the social media equivalent of spam.

One digital publisher that has adopted a more sophisticated approach is Mashable. The tech news behemoth has introduced the ability to share an article’s block quotes or multimedia content (videos, images..) via Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest. Of course, this could lead to similar-looking tweets, but at least anyone who sees them knows that the tweeter has read the article, or at least the quotes, before posting.

MashableScreen Shot of Mashable

Medium, “a new place on the Internet where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends”, goes one step further. Readers can select their favourite snippet of text and tweet it out, creating a genuine, personalised recommendation each time. With this, and the ability to leave notes alongside relevant passages, Medium centres on the real point of social sharing: to spark and broaden conversations.

 mediumScreen Shot of Medium

Perhaps it’s time we re-examined the notion of “going viral”.  In human life, aiming to contract a virus is against our nature.  A virus is an irritating thing.  It arrives quickly, gets in our way and is then forgotten.  We’ve even developed vaccines to help prevent us having to deal with viruses at all. Is this what we want for our content?  To be thought of as an irritant, something we want to block?

Of course we still want our content to be shared but we should aim for something continuous.  Rather than having virality as a goal, which produces short-term interest, we should seek a long-term “evolution” – producing content that may spread more slowly but endures because of its positive impact, content that is so beneficial that it becomes part of people’s daily lives and changes the way they work.  We should produce content that makes our brand better than before and allows our followers, by using that content, to do the same. In doing this, we become more than a provider to our audience, we become their partner and we forge stronger relationships.

What should communications professionals take away from this?  Think content first.  Vaccinate against content created purely to “go viral”.  Create quality content and quantity will follow.



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