I'm not knocking the desire for a campaign to go viral. It's just that, well, it's kind of stating the obvious. It's like saying, "I want my business to be really successful!" or "I want a product that people are going to love!" The critical question is, what makes viral viral?
Virulence in the online world has seemed to be an elusive beast, born from a heady cocktail comprising flashes of creative genius, brilliant execution, impeccable timing, and a hefty helping of luck. Malcolm Gladwell discusses virulence extensively in The Tipping Point: how there's often a wide base before an idea "tips,",how we need "connectors" to reach the nooks and crannies of a network, how context affects our perception.
But I'd like to take a step back here and return to the critical question: what makes viral viral?
The virulence of ideas rests on the same two fundamental criteria as the virulence of disease:
Infectiousness online is about one thing: desire. It is about making content that is compelling enough for people to want to pass it on. It is about producing that sense of inevitability of a successful viral campaign. "Of course it went viral," we think. "It was awesome!"
Fortunately, inevitability doesn't stop us from being able to understand it. Generally speaking, content is compelling for one of three reasons:
It's generally not wise to bank your company's future on a Lotto win, so it's the second category that gives us the best opportunity to create intentional virulence. How can we make our idea personal to people?
OfficeMax's Elf Yourself is a perfect example of this. If those elves had elf faces, you can bet the concept would have died out a long time ago. But because they have our faces, we can't pass them on quickly enough.
And here's where contagiousness comes into play. As much as I like you and your family, I probably wouldn't forward your elves to my friends. But at the end of the song, I'm presented with both the ability to quickly and easily make my own set of dancing elves (making the content personal to me and therefore compelling) and the mechanism to send it to lots and lots of people (making it contagious).
The more you can do to provide the mechanisms and incentives for people to share your content, the more likely it is to go viral. Putting a Forward-to-a-Friend or Share-With-Your-Network link on the bottom of your email is a start, but really, you need to be asking yourself, "Why would people want to forward this in the first place? How can I get them personally invested in its transmission?"
Scott Adams once pointed out that, if you want to be really successful, you can either be the best in the world at one thing or you can be in the top 25% at two or more things. Scott's an OK artist and an OK comedian, but put those two together and you get the magic that is Dilbert. The same holds true for the three types of compelling content. If you can couple good execution with personalization, you're halfway there. Throw in a cat or two, and you're practically home free.
One a side note, I'm aware that I've deviated a fair bit from the specific topic of search into more generalized areas of online marketing. If you're starting to get irritated ("Come on, Kaila, the column's called Search Insider!"), let me know in the comments. If you like this direction, let me know that, too. I'm here to serve.