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What is the viagra of virality?

Opinion, 14 December 2012

We all know that virality is the advertisers' Holy Grail, as marketers look for new ways to subvert the constraints of the traditional media model – because getting your idea across for nothing is always nice!

At its simplest, Virality is about sharing; it's about people sharing (talking about) an idea or object) which then becomes a social object. But what is it that transforms things and ideas into social or viral objects?

Memetics suggests that viral ideas are selfish replicators – units of cultural transmission ("memes") that are unconsciously imitated. Implausible? If so, why do people often talk (metaphorically) of being 'drawn towards' ideas they love, or of being 'repelled' by the things they hate? Conventional wisdom has it that people (rationally) choose ideas; but my company's work supports the converse notion: that ideas recruit people by operating below the conscious radar, firing up their emotions – either positively or negatively. In other words, emotions may be the viral Viagra that transform things and ideas into socially infectious objects.

But, which emotions give us viral Viagra? We have seen again and again that a wide range of emotions are associated with viral objects, but it is the intensity of emotional response that characterises and differentiates such objects. Two of the most talked about things we've measured recently are the Olympics and disgraced BBC media personality, Jimmy Savile. Both provoke strong emotional response, but it is the valence of those emotions that matters most – either strongly positive or negative. Why? For the simple reason that we share and talk about the things that we feel strongly about.

Many (most?) viral objects are infectious because of the positive emotions they engender, and the two feelings we find most commonly associated with them are energy and excitement. These emotions drive us to share ideas with others, and it's why we often speak (metaphorically) of viral ideas having 'a life of their own' - some inner energy that (seemingly) propels them through the population.

But there's a third powerful predictor of virality: empathy. And negative empathy (rejection) can be as powerful a driver of virality as positive identification. If I witnessed the following exchange between a brand lover and a detractor - "I love this brand." What? I can't stand it." - I'd guess that each of them is going to talk about it, but for very different reasons. Ideas we love draw us in (through the power of emotion) and inspire us to become their evangelists. Ideas (and brands) we hate repel us and encourage us to share our (strong) emotions with others.

Advertising too tends to go viral when intense emotions are triggered, but, because most advertising is made to a positive emotion model, it's the top end of measures like inspiration and excitement that are usually most predictive of a viral outcome. Happiness too is a strong predictor – particularly for amusing and engaging ads like CompareTheMeerkat – but sadness can work too in the appropriate context. For example, charity ads sometimes show disturbing or even shocking imagery - which creates feelings of sadness, yet leads to sharing. And the current Xmas ad for UK retailer John Lewis is a classic example of a 'tear-jerker' that's gone viral!

A version of this blog appeared previously on

About the author

David Penn is MD of award winning agency Conquest, based in London's Kensington. The company is one of the UK's leading independent researchers, boasting ongoing clients such as Heinz, Pizza Hut, L'Oreal, Pernod-Ricard, KFC and eBay. Conquest carries out both quantitative and qualitative research and, most importantly, is a pioneer of innovative online research methodology, welding neuroscience and behavioural economics with traditional communications theory.

Before starting Conquest out of sheer frustration with what many research agencies had to offer, Penn amassed a wealth of experience in marketing and research spanning both client and agency sides of the business, honing his skills at Lever Bros and UB.

Penn has published and presented widely on marketing and brand research recently, at MRS, ESOMAR, WARC and ARF conferences as well as running a regular blog on WARC website. In the last 6 years, he and his team have been shortlisted, commended or won outright a total of 18 industry awards, garnering the prestigious innovation in Research Methodology award for 2014. Industry leader David Smith identified Penn as one of the key contributors to helping us understand "how developments in neuroscience mean we should be laying down a new theory of market research." Veteran industry blogger 'Left Field' and other peers admire the trail-blazing proprietary methodologies developed by Penn and his team to measure brand emotional engagement and viral potential. Penn's "fantastic (work shows) that nowhere is emotional engagement more important than for campaigns hoping to enjoy viral success and word-of-mouth."