The Surprising Secret Behind Viral Marketing

Surprised woman with digital tablet

It’s not catchy headlines, usefulness and easy share buttons.  It’s something more fundamental.  More emotional.  The secret to viral is something that makes people want to spread stuff across social networks and mainstream media.

The secret to viral is surprise

Surprised woman

Surprise is the single common element of viral content. 

When few people share your blog posts and marketing material, when your stuff fails to draw attention, then it’s probably because there’s no element of surprise.

You see, there’s a crucial difference between great content and viral.  Great content is: interesting articles, beautiful photos, how-to videos.  The Top 5 Things to do in Budapest.  The Best Restaurants in London.

But great content doesn’t make it viral.  Doesn’t make people share.  It’s not a question of quality at all; it’s a question of surprise.

You might have asked yourself, Why does my stuff get some attention, then quietly fade away, while a crazy cat video spreads like wildfire across the net?

The answer is surprise.  The crazy cat springs out of a cupboard and lands on the dog’s back.  The dog runs out of the front door with the cat on its back.  That’s unpredictable. That’s share-worthy.

One of the top 5 things to do in Budapest is visit Heroes’ Square.  That’s really useful, thanks.  But there’s nothing unpredictable about it.  You’re not going to hit the share button right away.

Ask yourself this: What do a shoe seller, a wedding cake and Jean-Claude Van Damme have in common?

Here’s the answer:

The shoe seller delivers shoes earlier than the customer expects.  Often the next day.  They deliver nice surprises.  It’s a deliberate part of their business model.

“When customers think they’ll be receiving their new shoes sometime next week and the package shows up the next afternoon, they often turn to Facebook and Twitter and rave about Zappos”How Unexpected Surprises Create Insane Customer Loyalty

When Zappos delivers the goods unbelievably early, customers spread the word online.  They share the love on social media and draw others to Zappos.  Industry articles talk about the company.  Zappos gets positive free publicity.  All without paying for ads.

The wedding cake

A cake baker didn’t pay for ads either.  In fact, they weren’t even selling their creation.  It was done for family and friends. 

But that didn’t stop the cake going viral.  Didn’t stop the orders flooding in.  So many that the unprepared baker had to turn down requests.  Wouldn’t we all like to be in that position.

Lego cake baker ES article

The Lego wedding cake spread across social networks and featured in mainstream media, generating tons of interest and attention.  Why?  It was surprising.

Lego wedding cakeImage credit: Evening Standard

The wedding cake was nothing like a traditional one, full of flowery patterns and decorative swirls.  Those cakes are top quality, sure.  But they’re also predictable.  Unremarkable.

The Lego cake was surprising, unconventional, not what you expect at a formal ceremony.  That’s why it went viral.  70,000 Facebook shares.  140,000 likes.  Order requests stacking up.  Pretty good for a cake that’s not for sale.

Jean-Claude Van Damme

The Muscles from Brussels brought more attention to a pair of Volvo trucks than some of his movies.  An audience of over 82 million viewers.  How did he do it?  Take a look and find out:

The Epic Split went viral on YouTube.  It’s not hard to see why.  It was epic.  Not everyday do you see someone caught in the splits between two reversing trucks.  Let alone a Hollywood relic who prefers that kind of action on the dance floor.

Volvo Trucks were just as pleased with the attention The Epic Split got as I’m sure Van Damme was.  Win win.

“We see all the indicators showing this has been a very good investment—a relatively small investment—with a massive return”
Anders Vilhelmsson, PR director, Volvo TrucksHow ‘Epic Split’ Became the Buzziest Ad at Cannes

Zappos, the Lego wedding cake, and Van Damme’s Epic Split are all surprising.  That’s what makes them viral.

The Science of Surprise

Researchers at the University of Indiana showed a group of people 9 different viral marketing campaigns and elicited their emotional reactions to each one. Which single emotion came up consistently across all viral campaigns?

Indiana Uni Viral Research Results

“In our study, surprise was the dominant emotion identified by the consumers across each campaign.”Why pass on viral messages?

Other research studies confirm that surprise is a key element to viral content.  A key to creating stuff that spreads across social media and draws attention – whether it’s blog posts, content marketing campaigns or videos you’re producing.

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