Viral media is the holy-grail of advertising: it is free. It comes to you from a 'vector' you trust (or 'trust' at least)--your friends. When something "goes viral" (is highly read and shared) it becomes a story in and of itself: some people make a point of looking specifically for viral stories.
Viral media is especially important in politics. One of the key technology gaps that Team Romney had against the much-better Team Obama was that Obama was far and away better at getting their message shared on the Internet than their opposition. That was key to reaching several voting demographics that put Obama in the White House the second time around.
There are a few companies that specifically try hard to generate and capitalize on viral stories. Some of the big players are Gawker (making fun of obnoxious people), Buzzfeed (entertaining stories and lists with some specific political content mixed in as well), and Upworthy (promoting positive / feel-good stories to reach a wide viral audience).
About a week ago (Dec 3) the boss of Gawker Media sent a message to his loyal troops:
The bad news… We got overtaken by Buzzfeed in November. They surged to 133m global uniques. Damn. That’s impressive. And Upworthy — even smarmier than Buzzfeed — is nipping at our heels.
They’ll likely stay ahead until Kinja comes into its own next year. The race is on.
The good news: even with Kinja still under construction, Gawker & Co surpassed previous levels, with 106m global uniques in November.Translation: While there are bigger viral-media powerhouses out there, we're freaking huge and we're positioned to come back. In a picture?
|From Upworthy's presentation|
Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and Gawker are all one thing: liberal. This isn't a conspiracy theory and it isn't a secret. They aren't Bush-Planned-9/11 liberal. They aren't apologize-to-North-Korea liberal.
But they're unabashedly progressive (here is Upworthy's mission statement).
Here's Gawker's Top Links for today on Gawker/Politics:
- Colin Powell Is A Communist
- Republicans Love The Pope, as Long as They Don't Have to Obey His Words
- Here Is Your Bible of Privatization Horror Stories
- John Bolton Is a Mustachioed Foreign Scamster With an AOL Account
Here's one of a set of conservative blog Legal Insurrection's insightful posts on Buzzfeed's politics:
No one who followed BuzzFeed Politics during the election cycle could have any doubt who they wanted to win. There’s nothing wrong with that; I only object to media bias when it’s denied and not transparent. I don’t think BuzzFeed Politics was transparent in that regard.9 Out Of 10 People Get This Wrong About Viral-Media
My sense of the BuzzFeed Politics formula is: “Look at the goofy cat, look at the goofy celeb, look at the goofy Republican.” It’s very effective, relatively subtle, and very dangerous to us.
Most people (and, probably, even today, most social media directors) will tell you getting a story to go viral is luck. It's true that's a big, necessary part of the picture. The one thing you need to do to get your media to go viral is write 25 headlines for it before it even goes out. If you test those headlines, measuring clicks before doing intense promotion? Even better.
I'd guess we have 12-18 months until the population develops herd immunity to 'viral' headlines. http://t.co/x2GLKF6K8iThe One Stupid Thing You HAVE To Have To Go Viral
— Nate Silver (@fivethirtyeight) December 7, 2013
To be in the "viral game" you have to have compelling content. The content can fall into a few categories but these are the key ones:
- It's funny, "amazing,' or surprising
- It makes you look smart or is a 'story not covered by the mainstream media'
- It's uplifting, cute, or "emotional." A lovable hero or a hate-able villain work well. People like to see bullies lose and nice-guys win.
- Your message doesn't have to be positive but positive content is generally better.
Is positive or negative content more viral? First, we examine content valence. The results indicate that content is more likely to become viral the more positive it is (Table 4, Model 1). Model 2 shows that more affect-laden content, regardless of valence, is more likely to make the most emailed list, but the returns to increased positivity persist even controlling for emotionality more generally. From a different perspective, when we include both the percentage of positive and negative words in an article as separate predictors (instead of emotionality and valence), both are positively associated with making the most e-mailed list. However, the coefficient on positive words is considerably larger than that on negative words. This indicates that while more positive or more negative content is more viral than content that does not evoke emotion, positive content is more viral than negative content.
- It's embarrassing, spicy (but Safe For Work)
- Lists of things are good--and the number of items in your list might be more important than it seems:
The Other Thing You Have To Have: Presentation
Once you've got your killer content you need presentation: the right headline, the proper location of "sharing buttons" to let the reader send the message out via their Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, or other feeds--and you want to keep doing the work--the hard work--the expensive work--of testing your basic messages to find the right combination that'll "go viral."
Three Crazy Reasons There's Less Conservative Viral Media
So okay: there are these big viral media power-houses that have created politically effective messaging systems that reach significant numbers of voters. You can see what they're doing (in fact, if you're on the Internet at all, it's hard to miss it) and there's a science to it that makes viral messaging somewhat less an art and somewhat more a science ... So why aren't there conservative viral giants?
Let's look at some possibilities:
- Viral messaging is for the young and the young are liberal. Just as AM Talk Radio is for old people (Rush Limbaugh) we see the media where the target audience is. After all, isn't it just the youth on their Facebooks and the Twitters? It isn't us tax-payin' adults, now is it!?
- Them dern liberals understand The Intarwebs better. There was a 2012 campaign tech-gap. Maybe there's a tech-gap on the internet as a whole?
- Conservatives are working for a living. Liberals are surfing the Social Seas and looking at funny cat pictures while we pay for their health care and contraception. Maybe the issue is one of pop-culture instead of anything technical or age based?
While on the whole, the Facebook and Twitter demographics might skew young (to say nothing of Reddit) the idea that only 20-somethings are sharing things just isn't true:
|Make Sure Your Mom Would Approve|
While there was a technical capabilities gap around big data and voter outreach in 2012 there isn't any reason why conservatives couldn't run a Buzzfeed or Gawker or Upworthy. If Campus Republicans can run a conservative newspaper then Corporate Republicans (all of them, amirite!?) can run a meme-shop. It's profitable for, oh, I don't know ... Fox News?
Get A Haircut And Get A Real Job!
The Omnivore has noted on this blog that Conservative memes do kind of suck--but memes aren't the only viral media. There are blog posts, news stories, videos, and so on don't rely on punch pop-culture humor sensibilities to be successful.
Anyone with conservative friends on Facebook can easily see the armed-home-owner-saves-family stories or the political outreach about Obama's latest outrage. It's not like conservatives aren't reading and posting these stories--it's that (a) they don't usually meet the standard for real virality and (b) there is no media engine (like Buzzfeed) dedicated to creating them.
The Mind-Blowing Reason Conservatives Don't Have A Buzzfeed
Despite the tone of this article they aren't entirely out of the picture. Fox News, The Blaze (conservative news), and Brietbart.com are all "in the game" when it comes to sharing and liking on social media. However, if you look at some of the graphs:
|Brietbart Beats Gawker ... But ... Upworthy!?|
|HuffPo is also as liberal as they come. Never mind CNN!|
When it comes to political messaging there are some clear differences in the approach between the Left and the Right. Back in 2012, in response to the Obama-Promoting site wtfhasobamadonesofar.com a conservative group created a counter-attack: whattheheckhaveconservativesdone.com (now down, alas). Here are samples from the two sites:
|You Can Probably Figure Out Which Is Which|
As David Frum recently noted on his Daily Beast blog, it is impossible to understand the dog whistles you hear on Fox News if you aren’t familiar with the viral e-mail smears their audience believes in. Specifically, Frum was referring to Fox host Greg Gutfield’s line that “Obama is now out of the closet.… he’s officially gay for class warfare.” That’s a reference to the conservative e-mail meme that Obama is gay.But if viral emails are successful and conservatives are trying (at least to a degree--the Obama website is still up) to generate viral media, why isn't it working? Here's a picture:
|Virality Is a Combination of How Often You Click To Read It and Then How Often You Click to Share It|
Your Facebook Account: Personal Brand Management
When you are posting, liking, or even messaging on Facebook (or Twitter--or any social network) you are involved in brand management. What is that? Brand management is where something (typically a company or product line) constructs and maintains its image and meaning to consumers (or 'friends'). A 'brand' is the set of emotions and concepts surrounding a product or person. Don King, for example, has a pretty negative brand these days. Tom Hanks has a damn good one.
What you share on Facebook is advertising for your personal brand. That is: everything you share is designed to make your audience--your friends--your consumers--think a certain way about you. When you share something ... does it make you seem smart? Caring? Funny? Insightful? Ahead of the crowd? Better than your peers? Yeah? Quick! Share it before someone else does it first and dilutes it! Be a thought-leader!!
This is one of the reasons that being on Facebook makes you unhappy: Brand Management is about competition. When you are on Facebook you are competing with other brands (friends). It leads to this:
|It Can Go The Other Way If You Are Attention Seeking|
What Is Your Brand?
Your brand is a bunch of things. It's a collection--and a lot of it is stuff you wouldn't want to exactly own up to. Posting pictures of your adorable kids achieving things? That's a message: I'm a better mom than you. Posting pictures of your haute cuisine (or, maybe just 'hawt' cuisine)? I'm more sophisticated than you. How about whatever the cause of the day is? Kony 2012? Tributes to Mandela with pictures of Morgan Freeman? I'm more socially conscious than you (or, at least, I'm socially conscious--hey, I better catch up here!).
Brands can be contrarian: You can post angry articles in opposition to The Man, The Government, The Patriarchy, Rape Culture, The Main Stream Media, or whatever. In every case the post says something not about you--no. That's the lie: it's advertising for your brand.
Advertising is Aspirational
The second thing you need to know about Brand Management is that advertising is aspirational (in general). The people you see on TV who you are supposed to connect with? Those are the people you are supposed to want to be--not the people you already are. If you are already that guy there's no reason to buy Axe Body Spray (unless you are trying to build an aerosol based flame-thrower) or drink Guinness or whatever.
So Facebook activity (and to an extent all Social Media) is less about who we are than about who we want to convince people we are. It's not even who we want to be: chances are that right now, if you're an adult, you are more or less who you actually want to be. Like, for real and despite what you might be telling yourself.
Maybe that's another reason Facebook makes us depressed.
Who Do You Want To Be Today?
Let's look at those Red and Blue proposals. One of them blames someone in the opening line (liberals). One doesn't (the Obama one). It's not like one's a lie and the other isn't (I can't tell if either of them are true and can't be arsed to go check)--but right off the bat I can tell you that one of those is more self-limiting on the viral spectrum (and let's be clear: neither of those is ever going to go viral--but it's a great example of messaging) than the other.
The question who do you want to be today is best answered by the inverse: Who Do You NOT EVER want to be. Here are the words the College Republican survey found young people NEVER wanted to apply to them:
Well, unless it does. There is no lack of negative blog posts out there--on Facebook to commemorate the death of Mandela, someone posted a picture of people with tires around their necks about to be burned to death. Their post talked about Mandela's wife's connection to the (alleged, I, again, am not arsed to check) terroristic actions of Mandela's supporters.
Whether or not the story is true or not--or whether that reflects on Mandela (and if so how) is irrelevant. The key point here is that this guy's Brand Management (and the host of people calling out Ted Cruz for honoring Mandela) is about projecting his aspirational contrarian nature, hatred of communists, and so on / whatever.
It does not take a marketing genius to see that this hits Mean, Uncaring, and Negative.
In short, Upworthy works because they can take progressive causes and cast them in ways that aspirationally promote caring, positive, open minded, and intelligent connotations. They can uphold the oppressed (those who are 'bullied') over the oppressors (older white guys, usually?)--and whether or not any of that, the story itself, or the societal implications are even true the viral potential of the story is so much stronger it's not even a contest.
Take for example the viral campaign to get young people to Opt Out of Obamacare. These are the same guys who created the freaky Uncle-Sam-Probes you videos. They are intelligent, well funded, and have good production values. They want to get their message shared through Facebook and Twitter (the outrageousness of a psychotic Burger King style Uncle Sam giving young women an unwanted gynecological exam was designed to generate sharing on the basis of astonished controversy). Will the message go mega-viral? Let's see their "reasons" page.
In short, this message, whether it is true or not, is exactly the kind of thing that won't go viral. It doesn't support any brand other than a hugely marginal extremely contrarian brand (there are people who want to be thought of as mean ... but 'honest' or negative ... 'but clear-headed' or whatever).
The demographics of the GOP and the general needs of conservatism are counter to a lot of the drivers of viral brand management in the Social Media space. I don't doubt that we could see a lot more positive uplifting messaging coming out of conservative channels in the future but it isn't there now and it doesn't look like anyone's building it. The Outrage-Email-Machine probably works well enough for that bubble (people on the Obama-Is-A-Secret-Muslim Mailing List) but it's going to have a hard time getting people outside it to click-and-share.
In short, the medium doesn't support the message.