16th of November 2013

Published by unisabusiness magazine



Just as no single element can concoct a chemical reaction, no one thing can make a social video superstar. Rather, it takes the right balance of strategy and creative to work towards viral success.

It started with two years of work, five different data sets, more than 1000 videos, nine individual studies and a large team of researchers—and finished with a book. After conducting one of the world’s most rigorous studies on video sharing, Viral Marketing: The science of sharing is the first in a series of books to be published by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science and Oxford University Press.

A Senior Research Associate at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, Dr Karen Nelson-Field has researched and published on targeting, buyer behaviour and brand growth in the context of media for nine years. In her first book, Nelson-Field sets out to debunk a few myths and offer new knowledge on sharing, memory and the influence of creative devices in the social video space.

If you are spending marketing dollars clinging to the possibility that the brave new world of social video has brought brave new rules and the tantalising potential for a free ride, Nelson-Field says, “Wake up and smell the well-branded coffee.”

Viral Marketing: The science of sharing reveals that, contrary to current trends, the old scientific laws of buyer behaviour and advertising still apply to social media. Marketers who have read How Brands Grow (Sharp, 2010) will find the foundational research that underpins Nelson-Field’s work familiar.

Viral Marketing

It seems like a lifetime, but it has been only four years since Evian took the online video world by storm with its Evian Roller Babies video featuring break-dancing babies on roller skates. The video received 45 million views from YouTube alone, had 3 million shares at the time of research, gained 5 million Euro in free air time and reported sales increases in most regions. And it was this single instance of success that turned so many marketers into gamblers—gambling with marketing budgets trying to create the ‘next big thing’. Gambling on the dream of ‘free reach’.

Nelson-Field didn’t set out to dash people’s dreams, however she did set out to apply some of Andrew Ehrenberg’s principles of buyer behaviour to the new phenomenon of social video. Even as an experienced researcher and champion of Ehrenberg’s work, she had to admit that she was surprised how steadfastly his principles held in a completely new media.

By December 2012, over 11 billion social videos had been watched in the US alone. It’s only natural that companies would want to emulate Evian’s success. The problem is, up until now, they’ve been guessing as to what is behind that success. Some very expensive assumptions have been based on nothing more than a hunch, and most of those hunches have been about creative content. It seems that everyone was under the spell of those crazy skating babies!

Nelson-Field peels back the layers of viral marketing success to show us that no single thing can make a viral superstar, rather she offers 50 Top Tips for working towards viral success. Her book offers context and credibility by discussing the consequences of the pace of change brought by new media and how inevitably change occurs ahead of learning. It demonstrates the rigour with which the research has been performed leading to reliable and generalisable results. In short, it shows how and why the reader can trust those 50 Top Tips.

While Viral Marketing reveals that content may not be king after all, it does not write it off altogether. The creative characteristics and devices of videos that are shared more and less often are examined in detail, as well as the important role that emotions and arousal play in sharing. According to Nelson-Field, “Creators should worry less about whether the video content contains a baby, a dog or a celebrity, and instead invest in pre-testing to ensure the material makes the viewer laugh, gasp or get goose bumps.”


  • Emotions and arousal play an important role in video sharing, but wide distribution reigns supreme in viral video.
  • Creative quality is the ‘icing on the cake’ for getting shared.
  • Videos that exhibit high-arousal emotions cut through clutter and are most remembered.
  • Overt branding has no impact on the degree to which a video will get shared.
  • Using poorly branded advertising is like throwing away your marketing budget.
  • Don’t over invest in creative at the cost of distribution. This will not make a video go viral.

Another common question answered in this book relates to branding. There is a popular misconception that the online video world is too cool for branding; that somehow branding will turn viewers away and stop them sharing. Nelson-Field reveals that the brand is not the enemy. On the contrary, any money you spend on social video without showing your brand is wasted. It makes sense—what’s the point if the viewer enjoys and shares the video but doesn’t recall the brand? Digging even deeper, Viral Marketing reveals some interesting and useful findings about highly arousing content and the link between memory and, ultimately, sales.

So what does Nelson-Field cite as the single most important finding in her research, “Undoubtedly the fact that reach still reigns.

Content creators seeking viral success should always be thinking about viewership. Specifically, it’s the viewership that will make a real difference in expanding their consumer base. And no, quality viewership is not free.”

In case you are thinking that creative content has been placed in the recycle bin, this is not at all the case. Creative quality is still vital for advertising effectiveness. It is still the means by which marketers can create emotionally arousing messages; and it is this high arousal that affects people’s memories. After all, advertising is the race to be remembered.

So while distribution is now king according to Nelson-Field, good quality content is the icing on the cake. It might not be responsible for the levels of superstar sharing that most marketers dream of, but it is still present in those high-arousal highly-shared videos that exceed expectations. So rather than teaching the kitten to juggle, perhaps you should add some method acting to its repertoire.

If there is one resounding theme from Viral Marketing: The science of sharing it is that ultimately, people are still people and buyers are still buyers. Even though they are using new media they are still the same complex unfaithful creatures making decisions to suit themselves, not the marketer. Things are not the same, but they are not all that different. The old laws of marketing science still apply.


Now available as an eBook exclusively to Apple iBooks


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