Virology Series – A & B strands of viral content

What happens in a user’s head when they click the share button?

What is going on in social networks when the electric impulse travels like wildfire?

Social scientists and marketers alike would love to decipher the hidden behaviors and understand the key characteristics of content that generates virality (side note: I know this isn’t a term technically, but it needs to be – so it is now).

HECK, I would love to crack the code. I wish this very blog post would immediately overpower you with an overwhelming urge to click the share button (no, but really feel free). Anyone online who says differently is crazy – who doesn’t check their score every now and then? (read: every five minutes). So I have created this blog series to address this very important topic in digital marketing. This will be the first of many posts that analyzes the science of digital virology – how content spreads the globe. 

Recommended for YouWebcast: Strategies, Tactics & Tools for Content Marketing in 2015

Without further ado…

Viral Content Strands (A) and (B)

There are two prominent strands of viral content which can be found online. Each strand type can be easily identified with proper training. Both strand types are very powerful, but each spread the web in a specific recognizable pattern, infecting new viewers at different rates and periods.

Strand Type A – Single Strand Viruses

Have you ever watched a single video that had over a million views? Most likely that was a single strand virus. They are single strand because in comparison to “type b” they spread from a single, central content piece (video, song, game etc.). This means that they are more likely to have a single url address that spreads through social networks. In their nature, single strand viruses spread more slowly then their “type b” relatives because it takes time for new users to adopt the content, process it (watch it, read it, play it), and repost it. Type A viruses can travel insulated inside certain digital communities and not spread further until they reach a social bridge (an influencer or ordinary person that stretches across several specific social communities). After crossing the bridge it begins to explode again in a new social circle and a new cycle.

These viruses spread more slowly as they rely on sharing-novelty where users believe they are the first adopters of content and first sharers of content in their circle. As this virus travels in cycles with its novelty being reborn from bridge to bridge, it has a longer shelf life. Psy’s Gangnam Style is a perfect example of such sustained growth and social bridge usage. The video held remarkably high view rates averaging 9 million views a day.

At the same time, single strand viruses are also subject to early deaths. If they do not reach their bridges to infect new social circles or if they cross large bridges too early (such as mass-media and television where the novelty value is rendered mostly inert) they die out.

Can you identify these successful single strand viruses?

Strand Type B – Multiple Strand Viruses

In comparison, multiple strand viruses are born out of a digital habit or behavior – more so than a single, specific identifiable source. As such they can spread quite rapidly with no focal point, as all users across the spectrum in all social circles can embrace the phenomenon at once. These viruses can arise more suddenly and mutate to suit each user’s taste, being highly relevant to certain groups. If your own university creates a harlem shake, for example, it is very relevant to you and spreads infectiously within your own university’s digital borders. However, the mutated form of the virus cannot travel outside these borders, unless other users adopt the idea – at which point it mutates again.

Single strand viruses can also become multiple strand as users pick up content and imitate or edit it for their own usage. Just try googling “Rebecca Black Friday Spoof”, I’m sure you’ll find something.

The weakness of this strand type is their much shorter shelf life. These viruses catch on fast but burn out quicker. Once you’ve seen one harlem shake you’ve seen them all. Novelty is mostly lost. Their short shelf life is also due to their formless nature. They are inherently harder to track and follow, as there is not central point. While you can check to see how many youtube view’s Psy has, how do you check photobombing?

Can you identify these successful multiple strand viruses?

 Strand A/B Hybrid Super Virus

As far as marketing is concerned, the strongest type of viral content is one that embraces both strategies. Psy’s content is hybrid because everyone in the world now knows his dance (and perhaps uploaded a video or two). So marketing agencies should focus on creating content that starts off as a single strand but has a very high potential to mutate into multiple strand. Translation: campaigns should be strong, followable, trackable, centered and they should also  be replicable, user-generatable, spin-off-able, adoptable.

How can you go about doing this? Come back later in the series to find out!!

Next in the Virology Series – The Economics of Viral Content (stay tuned)

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