So you want to go viral… or so you think.

A simple Google search of the words “Viral Content” and you’ll quickly find a list of marketing guides, articles, how-to’s, and magic formulas that promise to make your brand’s content go viral.

We’ve all seen, and probably shared viral content… and brands understandably want a piece of the pie. Videos, articles, and other forms of content that rack up millions of shares and views overnight because of their humour or emotional appeal is, for most brands, a dream scenario. Memorable examples include Axe’s ad, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” Oreo’s Super Bowl “Dunk in the Dark” tweet, and, my personal favourite, the intro video… get ready to laugh.

Yes, I’m sure most brands would want to create a kick-ass piece of content that the whole world shares. However, while there is value in reaching a wide, global audience, it is likely that only a certain percentage of that audience is your true customer. Today, brands are constantly creating and pushing content to the masses in hopes of making widespread connections with potential customers. Yet, often time there is still little uptake in these efforts. This is a pain point of many marketers with the challenge being, if you are marketing to everyone you reach no one. So, instead of using a wide angled approach, marketers can refocus and look through a different lens.

Sometimes small can be really big.

What marketers fail to realize is that you don’t necessarily need “viral” content to make a big impact. A university professor once told me, “sometimes small can be really big.” Keeping this idea in mind, instead of focusing on reaching a massive audience, marketers should focus on something small, a specified segment or target of ideal customers. By focusing on a specified segment, marketers can achieve what we call “perceived virality” – when content appears to go viral in a targeted network. Unlike viral content, which reaches a lot of eyes but not necessarily the right ones, perceived viral content gets in front of the right people.

So how does this work?

Perceived virality is all about focusing on relationships and how people in a network are connected. Perceived virality exists when compelling content is shared within a segment or network with overlapping, dense relationships. Because of the shared relationships that exist within this space, content appears to go viral even if it is only shared by a few people.

Let’s look at a simplified example of perceived virality. In a highly dense network of 10 people, if three of those people share a piece of content, the chances of it reaching the entire network is high. Because of the small network, if only a few people share and are exposed to the same piece of content, it appears to be popular.


By sharing content in a highly targeted network, marketers are ensuring exposure to the right people, ideal customers, and not wasting marketing dollars on individuals that don’t fit into their customer type.

How to achieve perceived virality

The key behind any successful piece of content is to first identify the ideal community, then gain an intimate understanding of what will resonate with the specified target. What content do they share? What are their interests, passions, and pain points?

With technologies like Affinio, the audience intelligence platform, it is possible to analyze social audiences and find naturally-forming tribes of people with similar interests and affinities. Affinio is able to scores how dense a tribe is, or how many people within the segment know each other. The higher the density, or friendliness of the tribe, the greater the chance of achieving perceived virality.

With Affinio you are able to understand the content that matters most to a specific niche. With these insights, marketers are able to build content they know will resonate and has high shareability. To enhance the lift of your content, marketers are able to leverage tools, like Affinio’s lookalike modelling, to find more people that match your ideal target. Again, perceived virality is all about getting your content in front of the right people and not everyone.

While I cannot discredit the success of many viral campaigns, (Dollar Shave Club was valued at $615 million in 2015) the chances of becoming a viral hit is slim. More content is produced now than ever before. We are are experiencing an information and content overload. By aligning with a targeted group’s interests and passions, achieving perceived virality is an attainable goal that every marketer needs to be striving for. In closing, I’ll frame this theory up with a quote by our friend, Jeff Nicholson, SVP Paid Media at VaynerMedia:

“It’s not about how many fans you have, but how many people you sold tickets to.”


Originally posted on the Affinio blog.