Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing by Karen Nelson-Field [Interview]

Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing by Karen Nelson-Field [Interview]

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This is not your typical book review because Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing by Karen Nelson-Field is not your typical “how to get shared” book. First of all, you don’t want to be caught reading this book at work. No, the cover doesn’t shout 50 Shades of Grey. In fact, it’s a single shade of lime green. But, Chapter 4 is entitled, “Not All Fart Jokes Are Funny.” And there’s an Appendix that explains the author’s “Arousal Testing Research Method.”

Plus, the 114-page book will give you a little fundamental knowledge that you’ll want your colleagues around the office to think that you figured out all by yourself, instead of realizing that your insights came out of a book about compelling, exciting, solid and ground-breaking research that they can read, too. So, let’s just keep Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing a secret. It’s between you and me. Don’t click on the buttons to share this column on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or LinkedIn. Don’t click on the button to email this to a friend. And, whatever you do, don’t even think about Reddit or Tumblr. Get it? Got it? Good.

Viral Marketing The Science of Sharing chart

Okay, so here’s what just you and I need to know:

Using original research from more than 2 years of work, 5 different data sets, around 1000 videos, 9 individual studies and a large team of researchers from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, Viral Marketing offers solid advice on the nebulous business of video sharing. Dr. Nelson-Field reports new knowledge on sharing, memory and the influence of creative devices. This is a must read book for anyone working in the social media space. Read it before you strap those roller skates onto a kitten, it might just save you some time, money and credibility.

Oh, you might also want to know:

Karen Nelson-Field is a Senior Research Associate with the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia. Her current research focuses on whether existing empirical generalizations in advertising and buyer behavior hold in the new media context. Her research into social media marketing, content marketing and video sharing have been internationally recognized both in industry and academic forums while her (sometimes controversial) findings regularly spark global discussion amongst practitioners.

Karen Nelson-Field (2)

Now, this background information is generally available to anyone who goes searching for it. (That’s why you don’t want anyone to see you reading Nelson-Field’s book and start searching for it.) But, to give you a totally unfair advantage, I’ve interviewed Dr. Nelson-Field to get some answers to questions that you won’t find anywhere else. (That’s why you don’t want to share this column via social media or email.)

So, here’s the really good stuff (don’t pass it around):

Jarboe: Karen, your story begins with a troop of babies on roller skates. Why did you start conducting research on the nebulous business of video sharing in the first place?

Nelson-Field: “This is an easy one. This space is moving at a rate out of control, more and more marketers are using social video as a tool to reach out to customers across digital platforms. But what happens, when things are moving so fast, is that much research available for marketers is also rushed and often based on unbalanced data, single studies or case study evidence. For example we have all seen write ups of the top 20 performing videos, but what about the bottom 20? It is a long bow to draw to suggest that characteristics of the top 20 are exclusive. So my point is that when hype based findings are the basis of application, this is destined for disaster. So, very long story short, I started this research over 2 years ago knowing that research like ours, which is based on multiple sets of data, multiple studies across a range of conditions, was very much needed for marketers to rely on.”

Jarboe: Everyone seems focused on viral successes. What have you learned from the failures?

Nelson-Field: “I have learned that we glean a lot about what is successful when we look at the failures and that in reality what is often cited as characteristics of success are often also characteristics of failure, although failure is not a word I like to use. Most people deem failures as videos that are not highly viewed, but I have learned that marketers misunderstand and regularly misuse the term ‘viral’ and that even small videos, that are viewed by few, can still be ‘viral’. I have also learned that creative characteristics are not the primary driver of sharing, despite the copious amount of ‘research’ on the content side.”

Jarboe: You use the term “content diffusion” in your book. Does your work build on the Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers?

Nelson-Field: “Not really. From my understanding of Rogers work it considers adoption (and non-adoption) of innovations or ideas (typically technologies) that are considered new and that the innovation in effect replaces an old one. This is why in his work we see a positive diffusion curve whereby it starts with a few adopters and reaches many (saturation) over time. This is typical of how many think the diffusion of videos occur, that a ‘good’ video will grow to millions from a small base, but actually this is the opposite of what we see in our data. And this is because most videos have a pass along rate of less than 1:1. What this means is that the diffusion curve is negative, so a few people see it as it launches but the degree of penetration (views) drops drastically in a short space of time. This burnout or decay is slower the better the creative quality, but it is a negative diffusion none the less.”

Jarboe: Chapter 4 of your book is entitled, “Not all fart jokes are funny.” So, why do so many advertisers try to make funny videos?

Nelson-Field: “This is not related to making videos funny, this is related to what marketers ‘think’ makes videos funny! Let me explain. Every social video commentator has an opinion on what type of creative device gets shared the most. In nearly every article, book or blog we see some insight about the success of animals, cute babies or dancing. And while this commentary is not wrong our results suggest that it is not entirely correct either. But looking at only the top sharing, without looking at low sharers, only gives us half the story. The fact is creative devices can be equally successful and non-successful in terms of shares and equally high and low emotionally arousing. We find no correlations between sharing and device and emotions and device, but there is a relationship between degree of emotional arousal felt and sharing – my point is that videos with farts can be both highly arousing (hilarious) and low arousal (amusing), subsequently can share well or poorly. The one exception is personal triumph – it shares significantly more regardless of whether it evokes high or low arousal emotions, yet interestingly very few marketers use it (3% of 800 videos sampled). The lesson here is focus less on which creative device is applied and more on how arousing the creative is.”

Jarboe: Our readers are in the business of marketing. So, what’s the pay-off for linking emotional response to measures of advertising effectiveness?

Nelson-Field: “Emotions are long noted as important in content delivery because emotional reactions function as the gatekeeper for further cognitive and behavioural reactions. This is long noted in literature as being key in other advertising success measures i.e. brand favourability, recall, etc. So the payoff for marketers is the knowledge that videos that are highly emotive is what I call ‘icing on the cake’ for getting shared. That is, contrary to popular belief, while creative characteristics such as emotions are not the primary predictor of sharing success (you will have to read the book to see what is) they are important in gaining incremental sharing.”

Jarboe: You conclude that many old rules still apply even though the media landscape has changed. If this is true, then why are so many big ad agencies struggling to apply the science of sharing to their viral marketing?

Nelson-Field: “Two reasons, hype abounds in this space – for example when we are told often enough to believe that ‘deep brand engagement is the key to added loyalty’ many believe it, even when credible justification is elusive. Secondly, as blunt as this may seem, many agencies are not across the reality of how buyers behave or even how advertising really works. Most rely on pseudo-science or what they learned in college from text books. So it’s not surprising that my findings are hard hitting and in many cases contrary to popular belief…but they didn’t surprise me at all.”

Dr. Karen Nelson-Field


By the way, you may have noted that Dr. Nelson-Field used Australian spelling a couple of times (“behavioural” and “favourability”). That’s because she’s from the land down under. But, just as some movies include outtakes at the end, here’s a snippet from our interview that gives you an unexpected bonus ending to this column:

Jarboe: When I visited Adelaide back in 2001, I discovered Australians don’t have shrimp — they have prawns — and the whole “throw another shrimp on the Barbie” thing was merely an ad campaign to boost tourism.

Nelson-Field: “This is true, shrimps are teenie tiny and go in special fried rice, so no they would never be on the barbie – but (it was) a good creative campaign that makes you think of Australia!”


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