The 3 Keys to Going Viral

Using Consistency, Cost and Incentives to Create Virality

Going viral is the holy grail for most network designers. Networks that quickly expand and connect scores of members are more likely to achieve their goals. The Ice Bucket Challenge, for example, got 17 million people to either donate or soak themselves in cold water in front of a video camera, raising more than $115 million for ALS.

Many doubt that there is a recipe for virality, probably because it can sometimes seem like what goes viral is totally arbitrary. There are, however, a number of network properties — like tribalism, Sybil-resistance, and weak ties — that network designers must get right for a network to go viral.

  1. Be consistent.

Familiarity is one of the strongest causes of liking and attraction. At the most basic level, simply being exposed to something increases our preference for it. Academic research has shown, for example, that the more people see certain words, drawings, polygons, and people, the more they like them. One hypothesis is that people like what they are familiar with because it is easier to process what they already know. We feel more confident interacting with what is familiar, that is, because there is less risk of being blindsided by a negative experience.

“People like consistency. Whether it’s a store or a restaurant, they want to come in and see what you are famous for.” — Millard Drexler

For networks, this means that consistency is key. Consistent networks tend to provide similar experiences over time, so people can digest novel content through familiar channels. Buzzfeed, for example, uses the same formula for every video they post online. This enables viewers to formulate general expectations even though each video features different content.

Buzzfeed retains users with a familiar, digestible video format.

2. Find the optimal cost to participate.

Conventional wisdom in business says that customers gravitate towards what is easy. A simple of click of a mouse is easier than filling out a webform, which is simpler still than proving your qualifications to join a network. There is good reason for this mantra: The easier it is to use the network, the higher the likelihood that people will try it out.

There is, however, a psychological downside to low cost for participation. The lower the cost of entry, the lower the psychological commitment to the network. For example, to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge, people had to share a video of themselves pouring a bucket of ice cold water over their heads— a very high cost for entry. Nevertheless, the ice bucket challenge went viral. How?

First, there was a huge social element that fueled the virality of the Ice Bucket Challenge. People were nominated by their friends, who effectively called them out in a public forum, like a Facebook post. This created social pressure to contribute to a good cause, either monetarily or by spreading the word.

Perhaps more importantly, however, tasks that are marketed as “impossible” or “too hard” pique the interests of people who want to prove otherwise. This little bit of reverse psychology, which plays off the absurdity of pouring ice cold water on yourself on video, can motivate the “underdogs” among us to stand out. Take, for example, the so-called Impossible Game, which pits players against an unpredictable and ad hoc series of challenges. High costs of participation, paradoxically, can make something seem much more enticing than it may actually be.

Why would anyone want to play a game designed to be as frustrating as possible?

There is thus an optimal point for how costly it should be to join a network, and it likely depends on the type of problem the network was created to solve. Some networks should be very easy to join because long-term commitment does not matter for achieving the network’s goal. An example might be networks that try to quickly identify specialized solutions within a large array of possibilities, like “needle in a haystack” problems. In contrast, some networks should be difficult to join because exclusivity and longevity matter. One example might be professional networks for alumni of an elite college or a distinguished company. In general, getting the cost of participation right is one of the keys for going viral.

3. Use the right incentives.

The potential for virality also depends on the shape of the network graph, which is a depiction of how all of the nodes in the network are connected. Different network graphs require different kinds of incentives to go viral.

Some networks depend heavily on a few central members who are connected to everyone else, while most other nodes are not connected to one another:

Such networks might be a celebrity’s Twitter following or a political campaign centered around the candidate.

Other networks are more evenly distributed, such that most nodes have the same number of connections as most other nodes:

This kind of graph might represent a fair trading network between communities who share resources with one another.

Still some other graphs are hybrids of the two we have previously seen, with multiple clusters connected through weak ties:

This kind of graph approximately represents a normal social media network, with groups of friends connected by some mutuals.

The optimal incentives for a given network will differ depending on the shape of the network. More evenly distributed and decentralized networks, for example, will likely benefit from relatively small incentives for which everyone in the network is eligible. In more centralized networks, however, incentives must be targeted at the central nodes. Decisions about targeting incentives should follow these analyses.

There is a lot of talk about virality in the blockchain world. In general, understanding the components of virality can help us engineer virality instead of chalking things up to luck and circumstance. At nCent, we think that one of the keys to virality is finding the right incentives, which can only be done once you’ve studied the abstract form of a network’s graph. There is good science being done on this front, and we shouldn’t let it go to waste.

To find out more about how nCent is using incentives to create viral networks, see our homepage here. Join the conversation about nCent on telegram, and follow my twitter to keep updated on our progress.

More by KK Jain (@kk_ncnt)

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