Virals – No one knows anything
All virals are Black Swan. Or, why the use of past references and case studies might make you less likely to come up with the next big viral phenomenon.
I’m talking here, of course, about the ubber-virals. The ones that have been seen by millions of people, that everyone talked about, that have changed pop culture and have redefined the way we do advertising.
I’m not restricting my thoughts to online virals as now, any piece of communication can become viral – the internet is just the facilitator.
I’m also not just talking about ‘advertising’ virals, but phenomenons that have ended up being virals (Chocolate Rain, Mentos and Diet Coke, Blairwitch…).
There are only very few real virals every year. The subservient chicken, Kylie’s Agent Provocateur video, John West Salmon, the Mentos and Diet Coke experiment are a few examples of that.
What do they all have in common? They were totally unexpected, and their success is near impossible to intentionally reproduce. We’ve all analysed their success and come up with pretty solid arguments as to why they were so successful. Yet no one seems to have found the right formula to reproduce this kind of phenomenon.
But let’s go back to the Black Swan theory from Taleb’s new book:
What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
And here’s his argument summarised (whole article on Moneyweek here):
Taleb argues that humans are ‘hard wired’ to see the world through the lens of the ‘Platonic fallacy.’
We look for structure where there is none and comprehension where none is possible.
Such people are condemed to live in the realm of ‘Mediocristan’. There, their understanding will be conditioned by “Platonified economists with their phoney bell-curve-based equations”.
More, they will constantly fool themselves with the “narrative fallacy” – the human drive to impose a post hoc explanation on even the most shocking events.
Let’s come back to the last point. The “narrative fallacy”. Which is, how humans beings like to find patterns where none exist, trying to make sense of the unexpectable.
If you were to ask 10 advertising gurus why the subservient chicken was so successful, you’d probably get 10 different points of view. The surprise, the innovative use of the technology, the awkwardness, the comic factor… All making for a pretty sound explanation of why this one piece of work, out of hundreds of thousands, had achieved such a grand scale success.
Yet, for all these explanations, no one seems to be able to use this knowledge to recreate similar effects.
Being able to understand and analyse great virals is in no way a factor in predicting whether a piece of communication will go viral, let alone trying to manufacture another one.
I will go further than that. I actually think it’s counter-intuitive. As soon as you have some big principles as to why communication have turned out to be great virals, you are even less likely to come up with the next one.
As I said, all the virals listed above had one point in common. Their success was totally unexpected. You could not predict that, overnight, kids around the world would start popping Mentos into Diet Coke bottles following an online video. It’s easy to post-rationalise why they did. But it in no way guarantees that you will be able to come back with the next one (especially if you are one of the two brands involved).
Some agencies or really talented people have a better feel for what will is likely to become viral. But they are just doing better work than the rest. No one has found a formula to consistently turn communication into virals. Crispin Porter and Bogusky have never been able to reproduce another viral of the scale of the Subservient Chicken. The Viral Factory has not done something as successful as the Trojan Olympics. (And I’m happy to be proved wrong), Fallon will find it hard to come up with something as hugely popular as the bouncing balls or the drumming gorilla.
There is a big difference between great work, getting numbers and people talking, and highly successful virals. Yes, having some principles help us get to better work, but not to amazing work. It is only 0.01% of communication that has a major impact on our industry and on our audience’s lives.
So when trying to turn a communication into the next big viral, don’t just look at what has been successful in the past: it will give no indicators of what will be in the future and will make you less likely to achieve it. You need to be brave and look into other areas, new directions, outside of advertising. Don’t try to predict success by comparing it with the 10 most successful virals, it just won’t work.
By looking at past examples, you are going to make contrived work that is never going to be any better than the originals you were looking at. You’ve put yourself into the wrong frame of mind. Therefore it won’t be surprising. Or unexpected. This behaviour could not have led to the drumming gorilla or balls, because they broke every single rule of what people thought a good viral was made of.
Which explains why it’s so easy to post-rationalise why something went viral (by retrospectively applying a pattern to it) yet so completely impossible to recreate one.
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