Are you a viral manager?

Mar 14 2012 by Bob Selden Print This Article

The biggest thing in the news this week has been "Invisible Children – Koney 2012" a 30 minute video by the Invisible Children organisation aimed at garnering support against African warlords.

Why is this video so "big"?

It's gone viral. In less than five days it had more than 70 million views (at last count it was over 100 million). This is a story about the abduction, mistreatment and ultimate radical indoctrination of children into a waring way of life. So why has it gone viral? And why this video when other organisations (including Invisible Children) have produced similar topic videos without such social media success?

Does a video have to have a certain topic content to go viral? Do these viral videos have to have anything in common?

For example, "Britain's Got Talent" 2009 runner-up Susan Boyle whose song "I Dreamed a Dream" got me smiling (and crying) again when I watched it as research for this article (it had over 70 million views within 6 days). Or Rebecca Black, the 13 year old who made a funky song video "Friday" into one of the most popular and (depending on your viewpoint), disliked videos of 2011. Then there are the animated videos of less than 30 seconds that have hit the big time.

And for sheer outright career success, my favourite has to be United Breaks Guitars that turned little known Canadian country singer Dave Carroll intro an overnight success.

So, what makes something go viral, and what relevance does this have to management?

The jury is still out on the answer to the first part of this question (although I feel, getting very close to a verdict). However there are some very interesting theories that may go some way to explaining this phenomenon. In so doing, there may also be some thought provoking messages for managers - perhaps in the way we communicate and in particular, the way we successfully engender change in the workplace.

There are at least two elements in the answer to this question – firstly the content and the way it's presented (the intent), and secondly the emotional impact it has on the audience.

According to YouTube's Trends Manager Kevin Allocca and other experts on the subject, there are a number of essentials for a video to go viral:

1. There should be at least one or more "tastemakers" (e.g. Oprah Winfrey) that promote the video. Then the community (local or global) participates and becomes part of the video (e.g. in "Invisible Children" you are asked to sign a pledge before viewing – you feel as though you have contributed to the making of the video).

2. The unexpectedness of the video or characters that behave in a way that is totally shocking, surprising or comical for the occasion (e.g. Susan Boyle, a 47 year old somewhat overweight woman from a small Scottish village with very little visual appeal or professional presence who surprisingly possessed the most wonderful singing voice).

3. Community participation – "community" here meaning a cohort group (e.g. in the case of "Invisible Children - Koney 2012" over 90% of the initial viewers were under 25).

4. The message is compelling and heart touching.

Are you starting to see a nexus between viral videos and the way managers successfully stimulate change in the workplace?

The first three are classic change management principles, i.e.

1. Find the biggest supporters or blockers of change and get them involved in the change process.

2. Show people the unexpected. For example take something from the old that is important to them and something they thought would be shelved or completely done away with, and make it a key part of the new.

3. And of course, involve people in the change process itself (planning, execution and follow-up). In particular, look for cohort groups – find their particular needs and work with them to satisfy these needs.

It's the fourth element that I find managers overlook most – making the change a compelling and heart touching event or process. After all, it's not management-like to talk of feelings – the soft stuff. It's much easier to explain the change in terms of logic and reason, which we then find to our dismay, doesn't have the impact we intended.

A recent study supports the need we all have for a compelling and heartfelt message. According to a study by Jonah Berger, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, it has to do with the visceral emotions it arouses in viewers.

When people are physiologically aroused, whether due to emotional stimuli or otherwise, the autonomic nervous system is activated. This then boosts social transmission. Simply put, evoking certain emotions can help increase the chance a message is shared.

How important a lesson for the messages managers must communicate is this new evidence! If people are sharing messages, it shows a real interest in the content.

"In a prior paper, we found that emotion plays a big role in which New York Times articles make the most emailed list. But interestingly, we found that while articles evoking more positive emotions were generally more viral, some negative emotions like anxiety and anger actually increased transmission while others like sadness decreased it. In trying to understand why, it seemed like arousal might be a key factor".

This led Berger to his current study.

In the study, Berger suggests that feeling fearful, angry, or amused drives people to share news and information. These types of emotions are characterised by high arousal and action, as opposed to emotions like sadness or contentment, which are characterized by low arousal or inaction.

"If something makes you angry as opposed to sad, for example, you're more likely to share it with your family and friends because you're fired up," Berger contends.

Why does this desire exist? Decades of research in social psychology have shown that people often share strong emotions as a means of fostering connection and solidarity.

"If I'm angry, and then you get angry, we can bond over what we're feeling," Berger says.

The internet does not usually provide the opportunity to share these emotions in normal Facebook, tweet, text, email messages etc. It's only when a video clip or news article embodies all the viral elements and particularly the compelling and heart touching one, that people share these messages and in the process, their feelings.

There is one part of Berger's latest study that is particularly relevant for managers. Subjects who were aroused emotionally were found to be far more inclined to email a neutral online article to friends than those who were unaroused.

As Berger points out, the implications of this study are quite broad. "People's behaviour is heavily influenced by what others say and do. Whether you are a company trying to get people to talk more about your brand, or a public health organization trying to get people to spread your healthy eating message, these results provide insight into how to design more effective messages and communication strategies."

So as a manager, if you're looking to foster connections between people, solidarity, empowerment or change, then keep in mind that your message must not only be sound and logical, but must also touch the heartstrings of your people.

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.