Can stories be made as contagious as viruses?

What makes a story worthy of your attention? What makes it worth sharing with someone else? What kind of stories can move people to act upon an idea? This is something we’re constantly studying and analysing. When clients tell us that they want a story that ‘goes viral’, we know that it’s never as simple as creating great copy and visuals. We’ve been looking at why some amazingly told stories never catch on, what makes some stories gain momentum only years after and how some ridiculous ones get spread around enough to make us question human intelligence. 

Last year, we had an interesting insight to how stories spread when my partner Alain Parizeau got into the book ‘The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,’ by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell compared how ideas spread around to how viruses transmit, drawing quite interesting parallels between the two phenomena. We both thought that Gladwell’s analysis was quite spot on; especially because we were right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic at the time. Gladwell’s thoughts on how stories or ideas spread very much like a virus hit home with us as we watched the pandemic unfold in real life. Although the book was written over ten years ago, the insights were still very relevant. 

Gladwell pointed out three key consistent elements in ideas that would reach a tipping point and ‘go viral’, so to speak. Although described and coined differently, Gladwell’s three-ingredient formula for the transmissibility of an idea made perfect sense with what we have been studying about stories ourselves. These were, having the right community, relevance and context. If you’re interested in learning what makes a story that spreads like wildfire, here’s a quick look at what we know. 

1918, Douglas Fairbanks speaking in front of the Sub-Treasury building, New York City, to aid the third Liberty Loan. Paul Thompson. War & Conflict Book.

Find the few who want to tell your story
After hearing my partner analyse Gladwell’s first factor of a viral story—the law of the few—it became apparent to me as the phenomenon we all now know as ‘influencers’. What Gladwell calls the ‘law of the few’ identifies how a small number of people do the most important leg work in making a story popular. This is not difficult to understand today because we’ve all seen how social media influencers and celebrities make stories go viral within a matter of minutes. But, not everyone can afford to get Beyoncé to advocate their brand. So, how does this apply to your business? As part of our story design process, we always get clients to define their target audience, and within that, identify people who have actively shared the brand’s stories, participated in activities or events, and made attempts to connect with the brand in some way; These people become very important in the process of spreading brand stories to wider audiences. We think brand faces, or influencers are great, but only when these personalities are true embodiments of the brand’s own values. After Gladwell’s book, we started paying more attention to another group of people from the brand audience—these are the connoisseurs of the product or service of our clients’ business. Involving these experts from the audience is a great way to get the conversations going while building reliability and trust between the brand and its audience. 
Creating stories that are specific to the interests of these different niche groups is a sure way to get them involved in a meaningful conversation and get the story spreading for the right reasons. This, we find, is a far more effective way to get a story to spread, than placing an advertisement in a newspaper. 

From our experience in creating stories for brands, we know that precise targeting of conversations, even to the degree of niche topics for hyper-specific audiences, is a great strategy that delivers results. This is because the storytellers then have the ability to analyse exactly what the audience is into at that given time, identify key narratives that are moving them, and create stories that bridge the brand and its consumer.

Make it relevant to make it memorable
Something we can’t compromise when creating stories for brands is relevance. This means creating stories that actually bear relevance to what the audience is experiencing in their lives. When my partner was dissecting Gladwell’s book, this is what was highlighted as ‘the stickiness’ factor. A successful story is memorable. What makes a story better remembered is how effortlessly it can be retained in memory; This is especially true in the current media landscape, where we are inundated with information all day long. If a story appeals to what a consumer’s mind is already occupied with, it is much more likely to be remembered. This is why relevance is so important to brand storytelling.

How do brands build relevance? Research, research, research. We always encourage our clients to understand what their audiences are going through in life, even at the most gross, peripheral level that a brand can access. Even a little research is better than no research. Researching the audience is one of the most important steps in successful storytelling, and we’ve shown clients how their investment in audience research can go a long way when it comes to creating stories that drive sales and build brands.

Context is everything
I remember how quiet our city street became when more people started working from home. One afternoon, a vehicle was parked outside our studio with a loud speaker attached to the roof; promoting something. The message and the company being advertised may have been relevant to us, and under different circumstances, we would have even found the story memorable; But, it was lost because of the inconsiderate ways of communicating, and the displacement of the message in our neighbourhood. This brand story simply had no context to the audience it was speaking to. We simply wanted the driver to leave the neighbourhood and for the quiet to return. It’s hard to think of any context where this form of brutal advertising strategy would be effective. So, the context is not just who is spreading the message; it’s also where it lives. The level of empathy, tact, and patience a company has when telling stories influences the contextual success; to gain someone’s attention, and maintain it. 

So, the answer to the question ‘can stories be made as contagious as viruses?’, is ‘yes, they certainly can’. Often enough, we see this happen organically; But, devising a story to reach that tipping point and go viral, is a complex enough process that is worthwhile studying and understanding. If you want to find out more, talk to us at Public Works. We’re always up for making a great story.