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What’s so special about Pokémon and flappy birds?

Viral Marketing Psychology

Haven’t we all wanted to design an idea or a piece of content that goes viral and opens floodgates of sales or leads? With so much advice on viral marketing out there yet very few success stories, there must be a secret sauce or a magic incantation that we can apply to give our ideas wings.

This post is part of a series on Viral Marketing. Make sure you read the other posts:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

There are thousands of articles claiming to have cracked virality; there’s no denying - even we’ve posted tips on how to make content go viral. For those who want to dig deeper, there is a (flawed) formula for calculating viral growth suggesting that viral marketing ideas spread progressively.

At the end of the day it all comes down to a few simple factors that are quite difficult to model and influence. So why bother, you might ask? Mainly because today there are more opportunities of making stuff go viral than there ever have been and the recent hubbub surrounding the new augmented reality (AR) game Pokémon Go is a great example.

The best viral stuff out there is very simple, contagious and imitable. Wait, so are we talking about making memes? Yes, as a matter of fact we are, only not in the narrow sense of applying a silly caption to a photo of Sean Bean. explains a meme to be “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”

Armed with this insightful definition, let’s look into the realms of human psychology to try to understand what has made games like Pokémon Go and Flappy Bird go viral and what we as content creators can learn from it.


Viral marketing is based on psychology

No matter who your buyer persona is, there are a few features that let you apply general rules to your target audience. I’m not a big fan of generalisation and pigeonholing but here we go. Let’s see what we know about people.

Life is an experience

Firstly, people want to experience things. When you go travelling or attend a concert, you go there for an experience. If your product or service comes bundled with an experience, you’re already half way there.

Why is GoPro doing so well? Not only do their products automatically become part of the user’s experience, the company also makes a good job of making experiences easier to share. If you check their YouTube channel (4+ million subscribers, by the way) all you see is ordinary people having so much fun that it almost makes you green with envy.

Most marketing methods that we have in our arsenal are disruptive and invasive – things like TV ads and cold calls interrupt a person’s life flow and add up to negative experiences. If you look at the really successful brands, their marketing approach can be described as involving and inclusive. It makes the target audience part of the brand’s own journey and experience.

Emotions lead to actions

People are looking for emotional connection and association. They want to like something, especially if their friends like the same thing. Research published by Sorbonne University showed that individual emotional response to content doesn’t matter much.

Yes, most viral memes have a positive connotation, however, the thing to keep in mind is that negative memes can still become viral and not all positive memes will go viral. Far from that.

According to scientists, we’re looking for a combination that satisfies a certain Valence-Arousal-Dominance model. They found that getting the right valence (positive emotions) was not enough for a story to spread via social media. It also had to arouse excitement and make a person feel in control (inspiration, admiration or other similar emotions).

That’s why a video of a cat sitting there and looking cute is unlikely to become viral. It only satisfies the Valence part of the formula. Whereas if it’s a video of a cute cat performing an outrageous trick, it’s got all the prerequisites of spreading far and wide as it suddenly ticks all three boxes: positive emotions, surprise and inspiration (i.e. it inspires us to teach our cat the same trick).

Why is it always me, me, me?

All people are driven by Ego. We want to excel and we are looking for peer approval. This is why multiplayer games that publish high scores are doing so much better than games that lock you in your room and isolate you from your peers.

Flappy bird looked like a very simple game yet it was in fact really hard. If you’ve tried to keep the little critter from crashing into the pipes, you must know what I mean. So, you cleared the first few pipes, posted your score and then realised that there were a few million people out there who had been doing much better than you.

Although the sane thing to do at this point is to give up and get on with your adult life, the majority of people catch the bug and keep playing to beat their previous embarrassing score and then to get the better of their friends.

Analysing the language from reviews on iTunes and Google Play, I noticed that most people posting reviews for Flappy Bird sounded like adults. The same is true for Pokémon Go.

A big chunk of people dashing through the streets with their right arm hoisted up in the air chasing imaginary creatures have already had their first grey hair and are expected to behave responsibly. Their inner child, however, will always be there regardless of the amount of grey hair they possess, and if your viral campaign can wake this child up, you can get them to do almost anything you wish.

So to sum this all up, your next viral marketing campaign should invoke positive emotions, surprise people, involve them into an experience and enable them to share their experience with friends.


How can businesses make their stuff go viral?

If you want to capitalise on the Pokémon Go frenzy, you can start by checking if your business is in vicinity of any PokéStop.

If it is, you can get people to turn up on your threshold by spending a few quid on in-app purchases and dropping Lure in your area. I know it doesn’t make any sense unless you’ve collected Pokémon cards when you were a kid. There’s a great article exploring this guerrilla marketing method in more detail.

Even businesses that are not clued up on technology are making oodles of cash on the back of this craze. In New York, for example, it’s quite common to see a Pokémon crowd followed by street food sellers and of course they are selling a lot of hot dogs because you tend to get hungry if you’re chasing Pokémon all day.

Niantic, the company that developed the game, has revealed they are going to let companies sponsor PokéStops. This, I’m sure, will open discussion on how brands should transform their way of thinking to include these new unusual opportunities to reach their target audience.

As for the more down-to-earth stuff, the easiest opportunity for retailers is to bolt something exciting onto their current customer loyalty scheme.  Most businesses approach this in a way that their official mobile app becomes an extension (or indeed a replacement) to their existing customer rewards card.

For example, Holland & Barret didn't exactly set the app repositories on fire when they launched their app last winter. Google Play reports between 10K and 50K downloads which is rather moderate for a national brand. Their main strategy for driving mobile app installs seemed to be offering a chance to win loyalty points. A marketing approach based on giving out discounts without any further involvement can only lead to one thing – it will attract compers and coupon hunters.

Since H&B are promoting healthy living, they could build virality in their product by giving people challenges to complete, e.g. walk an X amount of miles per month and post their achievements on leaderboard to claim a reward. With all smartphones supporting GPS this would be a fairly simple thing to do. Another idea could be to cook Y new healthy recipes and get a voucher to try something new from their range.

Generally speaking, companies need to develop a different approach when planning and building mobile apps. In 2016 building a branded mobile app no longer means porting your website over, repackaging it and calling it an app.


Pooling  resources

One approach that I predict could see a real growth in the next couple of years is collaborative virality. There’s a chance your local shopping arcade has already done this in the shape of QR codes or events, when all individual outlets participate in a campaign to drive footfall to the arcade.

Another potential route for collaboration would be for smaller brands to collaborate with independent game developers. The chances are you might not be able to afford to sponsor a location in Pokémon Go but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t sponsor an experience through a smaller independent game or any other mobile app whose operation is reliant on user’s geolocation.

The toolbox of a modern meme builder is incredibly varied: AR, 3D printers, drones, wearables, subcultural phenomena like planking, geocaching and selfie-taking. The key is understanding your target audience. Ok, you may develop an awesome idea for a viral marketing campaign that involves your customers using drones to capture a photo of a hidden object. Only it won’t work unless the majority of your buyer persona own a drone.

We also have to be able to see the whole picture instead of separating marketing channels. Thoughts like "how to make a story viral on Twitter" are kind of limiting. When designing a meme, we should keep our minds open and ensure it is suitable for spreading through different environments both online and offline.


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