How Viral Marketing is Like Writing a Hit Song

Many of you reading this know I’m a songwriter in my spare (ha!) time. I haven’t had any hits, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t written any.

That’s not just a rationalization; it’s a relevant insight into how viral marketing works.

Is viral marketing something you can make happen or is it something that just happens by itself when you get lucky?


Is writing a hit song something you can manufacture or something that just happens when you magically stumble onto the right thing?

Again, yes.
Creative Commons License photo credit: essygie

Marketing the meta-message

Viral marketing isn’t about Youtube, and it isn’t about Twitter. The phenomenon is bigger than the formats. Viral marketing is everything from “Where’s the beef?” to Coke and Mentos to Susan Boyle. It’s sometimes the result of careful planning, but it’s more about being lucky enough to hit a nerve.

The hit songwriters I know will swear up and down that it’s nearly impossible to sit down to write a hit song. Yet there are some I know who sit down and write hit songs all the time. The apparent contradiction lies in the intent.

Similarly, if your aim, first and foremost, when you sit down to plan a campaign, is “let’s make this thing go viral,” you’re probably starting out at a disadvantage and you’ll come off sounding flat.

Getting the content right

A more reasonable starting point is more like “how can we really get into the minds of our audience.” What’s the biggest problem on your audience’s minds?

Now you’re closer to writing a hit.

In other words, make sure you know your audience. I once heard a country song being screened for a publisher and it used the word “topography.” It made a neat little rhyme, but it was way off for a mainstream country audience.

You know what I’m getting at: know your crowd, know their interests, and speak the language. I’m not talking about stereotyping; I’m talking about reaching into the common experience and reflecting it.

But then: add just that element of surprise.

This is the part a lot of marketers – and a lot of songwriters – miss when trying to achieve mainstream appeal. They play to the lowest common denominator and don’t look for the surprising twist that makes it work.

Stick with it

Of course, you don’t see how many attempts it takes to make a hit. The overnight sensations are usually the ones that spent years refining their craft before they ever took the stage. If you’ve ever had a campaign go viral, you probably had dozens sit stubbornly sterile and you know the frustration of feeling like you did all the right things and it still didn’t catch on. It takes persistence to power through that and keep trying to make a campaign that takes off.

Just remember us little people when you make it big.

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