Behavior Under the Planning Microscope, Part 1: Viral

The changing communications paradigm is old news. By now, we shouldn’t be trying to convince clients about this tectonic transformation in the industry, we should be trying to figure out how to effectively manage the future of media planning.

As consumer behaviors continue to evolve and diversify because of proliferating media choices, media planning must change its game to incorporate not only media knowledge but also consumer behavioral insights to develop effective communications strategy.

So-called communications planning has been one of the fastest-growing disciplines in the media community. It’s been quietly entering the industry spotlight, gaining more buzz and attention as the importance of media strategy based on consumer insight grows.

Most of the U.K.’s large media agencies (e.g., Carat, ZenithOptimedia, OMD, etc.) have institutionalized formal communications planning divisions that sit along side the media department. Communication specialists such as Naked and Nitro are arguably already veteran players in this space. The purpose of communications planning, of course, is to deliver more strategies driven by consumer insight than traditional efficiency-based plans that focus on reach and frequency.

Behavioral targeting and planning are critical pillars supporting the communications planning process. In their purest form, they should combine technology-based targeting with a deeper communications-based understanding of consumer behaviors. Rather than just knowing the how of media and response, planners will need to understand the why and motivation behind consumer actions.

In the next few columns, I’ll explore a few dominant online behaviors. We’ll start today with viral.

The Essence of Viral

Most people associate viral campaigns with entertainment and the experience of sharing. The obvious reason for passing on a viral video is to share a humorous, entertaining moment with others.

However, sharing is a dividing, apportioning, and receiving experience, which implies that the very act of sending a funny viral to a friend has a reciprocal expectation of receiving something in return. The sharing process strengthens bonds and relationships and can actually initiate connections.

But what’s the psychology behind this viral-sharing phenomenon? A sense of belonging.

The Basic Human Nature of Belonging

Belonging is the acceptance as a member or part of a group. We humans are naturally drawn to belong somewhere and formulate our identity based on group affiliation. It’s an innate human behavior.

Douglas Rushkoff, a well-known media theorist, describes “viruses” (analogous to the online viral phenomenon) as intrinsic catalysts of relationship formation (belonging) in groups.

According to Rushkoff, people don’t engage with each other to exchange viruses; people exchange viruses as an excuse to engage with each other. Media viruses and their massive promotional capability are dependent on the collective spirit and the increasing need for social currency that has resulted from the rise of digital channels that fluidly connect people to others.

What Does It Mean For Planners?

A client recently told me that since her product division doesn’t have sufficient funding to do a full-scale online campaign, she wants to invest all the marketing budget into viral marketing without media support. I asked her whether the creative agency had already developed a communications idea for the campaign. She said, “No, but we need to do a viral as we need to be cost effective.”

Apparently “viral” is now a new media channel and a marketing panacea that can be launched independently of an idea.

The client’s desperation to be cost-effective isn’t unusual, and her interest in doing a viral campaign is certainly encouraged. But a good viral campaign is fundamentally based on an engaging idea and, whether with full media support or not, its entertainment and creative qualities are what ultimately creates a viral nature.

The Internet allows people to infinitely create different dimensions of connections and belongings. This means when planners are devising viral campaigns, besides the obvious seeding and distribution (which are media-centric), we must consider the communications principles behind human belonging.

A successfully developed and launched viral campaign isn’t just finding ways to reach a few key individuals to pass along the experience to others; it’s about creating an idea that provides people with the currency they need and the interface that enables them to forge new social connections. Rather than looking at it from the outside in, we must fundamentally understand which ideas will allow people to better connect.

This is perhaps a fundamentally different approach to planning a viral idea than most media planners are used to. But as media evolve into more of a media communications model, behavioral targeting must naturally expand beyond its current scope of technology-based targeting.

In part two: social networks.

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