Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis may never learn what the fox says, but its video posing that musical question solved a far greater mystery: the secret behind viral media success.
"The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?)," released in September 2013, received some 40 million online views in its first two weeks and scored an astounding 276 million by December, becoming YouTube's top trending video of the year.
Silly, bizarre and undeniably catchy, "The Fox" went viral simply by provoking a powerful reaction across a range of demographics. And that visceral response is what separates viral breakouts from busts, according to Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On.
"There is a science behind why people share. It's not chance, and it's not random," Berger says. "If you understand the underlying science of human behavior, you can predict what people are going to pass on, and you can craft your own contagious content--whether it's messages, products or ideas--that people are more likely to spread."
Berger has spent years investigating the mechanics behind virality, identifying six key drivers under the acronym STEPPS. They are Social Currency (e.g., sharing things that make people look good), Triggers (acknowledging that we talk about things that are top-of-mind), Emotion, Public (imitating what we see others do), Practical Value (news people can use) and Stories (information passed along under the guise of idle chitchat).
"Each [driver] is a research-tested principle that increases the likelihood that people will talk about and share things, that brands get word-of-mouth, that services get shared and that videos get passed along the internet," Berger explains. "We can reliably say that including certain characteristics and messages will increase the number of people who share [content] and the likelihood it will be shared."
Understanding and leveraging these drivers does not guarantee a successful campaign, however. "Part of the problem with chasing this idea of 'viral' is that people build content that doesn't have anything to do with the brand," Berger contends. "You can make a really funny video, and people will laugh, but if it doesn't have anything to do with the service you're offering or the product you're selling, it's not going to impact sales. Too many companies and organizations are chasing good content without understanding how to make it help the brand."
In fact, he argues that small businesses should worry less about going viral on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter and more about generating buzz in the real world. "Sometimes [companies] focus too much on the technology and not enough on the psychology," he points out. "Only a little bit of word-of-mouth is online. Technologies will come and go, so rather than getting fixated on a particular technology, you need to understand why people share, regardless of the technology they're using. Every person who buys from you, every service that works with you, every person who goes to your website--how can you make them more likely to talk about you, share you and bring in new business? You want to turn your customer base into a marketing department. That's what word-of-mouth does."