The power of promotion: three ingredients to make ideas go viral

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“Viral” has taken on a new, and mostly positive, connotation in the Internet era. A video, a photo, an article bursts onto the digital stage and suddenly everyone is talking about it, copying it, satirizing it, secretly wishing that they had something going viral. Remember the Ice Water Challenge or “Gangam Style“? The gossipy nature of viral ideas is one aspect of our social nature.

The idea of “going viral” is now moving from the online world to the physical world. Marketers would love for their product, service or idea to go viral–instant promotion! overwhelming demand! Most attempts to force viral spread die a sad and quiet death. But this great article in Stanford Social Innovation Review outlines the work needed to encourage ideas in the public and social sectors to go viral.

In her article, Carina Wong outlines the three ingredients that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seeks out, creates and funds to encourage the viral spread of best practices in education:

  • Influencers: these are the thought leaders, style makers and opinion shapers that others look to for information and inspiration. Both formal and informal leaders can be influencers. If you want to move an audience, it’s good to know who they already follow and trust.
  • Narratives: these are mostly the stories that your audience is already sharing among and about themselves and their work. Wong found that teacher narratives included a desire for professional respect, a desire to collaborate in learning with their fellow teachers, and a desire to advance in their profession without leaving the classroom. If your idea supports, answers or advances an existing narrative that influencers are already telling, you’re halfway to going viral.
  • Networks: these are the ways, virtual and tangible, that your audience and influencers congregate. These could also be called markets, since markets are collections of people.

I think Wong’s recipe for viral ideas in education generalizes to nearly anything someone wants to promote.

Like any recipe, encouraging the viral spread of ideas requires work. That’s one thing that the viral dreamers of the Internet get wrong. They are mainly hoping for the get-rich-quick power of a fad. The good kind of virus requires more work than a fad, but has more impact and lasts longer.

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