The perils and potential of "going viral"

"Going viral" — Be careful what you wish for.

One year ago this month, Microsoft Advertising released a study exploring consumers’ shrinking attention spans. In it were details of how social media and mobile device addiction were re-shaping how our brains work — how we’re able to pay attention (or not) in the face of proliferating media and consumer technology. Brainsights ran a big portion of that research for Microsoft, measuring the brain activity of more than 100 adults as they performed a range of tasks and consumed a range of content across various screens. The press picked up on a specific point that you may have read or heard at some point since: “Human attention spans are now shorter than those of goldfish.”

The study went viral.

Time, the Daily Telegraph, the Globe and Mail, the Independent, the National PostUSA Today, and many others picked it up. It even made it into Chelsea Handler’s Netflix show “Chelsea Does” (the Silicon Valley episode).

It taught us a lot about the power of the media in creating an idea, and what it takes to ‘go viral’ (more on that later).

For us — a young company, this was incredible to experience. Until it wasn’t.

It was awesome to be involved with what we believed was a vital piece of research, and associated with such a recognizable brand name in Microsoft.

But two things about this story’s reach weren’t so great.

The first was that most people didn’t know Brainsights was even involved. Their reaction to learning that we were a huge part of that research was: Really? I didn’t know that. (In fairness, few of these same people linked Microsoft to the research either.)

This probably had much to do with the second unfortunate thing about the coverage: the headline. It lodged a notion in the collective psyche that was overly simplistic and perpetuated misconceptions. Plainly, it just wasn’t true.

Web media is incented to sell page views, and so produced a devilish headline it thought would drive clicks.

It did.

The trouble was, no one read the research. Not even the folks writing about it.
If they had, they’d have known that this headline doesn’t even come close to reflecting what’s inside. Inside are nuance, texture, and rich insight that advances human understanding and prepares businesses to better serve consumers.But the headline was everything. It framed the content, for better or for worse.

Virality is a double-edged sword — you may get reach and spark a conversation, but will you get the desired impact?

We’ve learned a lot since that research.

To start, it taught us about some ingredients for virality.

  1. Take a concept that a lot of people can relate to. In our example: we all feel a diminished ability to pay attention or focus.

  2. Couch it in a way that people can a) access instantly, b) want to believe (the goldfish comparison), and c) in a contrarian way to prevailing belief (technology is all good/technology is not all good).

  3. Inject it with the force, authority, celebrity and reach of a brand with a stake in the argument — Microsoft — and let it loose.

The second thing it showed us was the power in communication of emotion over logic. It’s something we insist our clients consider, as it’s what drives decision-making. Indeed, the emotional and non-conscious power of communication is fundamentally what Brainsights evaluates.

But lessons are best learned when experienced, and this was as good a lesson as a research and technology firm like us could gain at our age. We experienced first hand the power of our underlying philosophy — an emotion-tapping headline that rapidly hardened a perception.

Finally, it taught us that virality is a double-edged sword.

You may get reach and spark a conversation, but will you get the desired impact? Will your message even get across?

Riskier still: there’s no guarantee that the message that does get across is the one you intended. This is what happened with the Microsoft Attention Span study: rich insights on the human condition were superseded by a headline that half of us desperately wanted to be true, and half of us desperately wanted to be false. The details inside were secondary.

The lessons we learned were reinforced once more in the intervening year.

By strange coincidence, one of the ads we used in the Microsoft study was Chipotle’s Back to the Start. With Willie Nelson covering Coldplay’s The Scientist, the spot told the story of Chipotle’s mission to return to simpler times of food production, away from the factory farms and mass processing found in today’s fast food industry.

Chipotle’s spots have chalked up millions of YouTube views — they’ve ‘gone viral’. But what about the spots actually connected with people?

By measuring peoples’ brain activity as they viewed the spot (and more than 2 hours of other content), we pinpointed the precise moments that resonated at a deep, non-conscious level. We knew exactly what would be lodged deep in the minds of consumers.

For Chipotle, it wasn’t the green pastures of free-roaming pigs. It wasn’t the happy farmers. It wasn’t the local farms and the organic produce and meat.

The single moment that towered over all others was when the transport trucks were pulling cubed meat out of factories and, critically, precisely when factory discharge poured into rivers (from 1:03 in the video).

Screenshot from Chipotle -  Back to the Start

Screenshot from Chipotle - Back to the Start

The moment that connected deepest with consumers shows industrial sewage dumped into water. That moment resulted in 2–2.5X greater neural emotional connection than the average of all the content consumed. This is massive. It’s like following a Pee Wee pitcher with a David Price fastball.

It was the deepest connection that happened in the entire spot — the one thing that consumers will take away from the ad, and take away from Chipotle. More than local, fresh, and organic.

What this told us was that consumers value a brand whose promise is to ensure this kind of industrial waste is nowhere near the food they produce.

So, if it’s environmental stewardship and honest, transparent supply chain practices that most resonate, it should also be these brand promises that are most protected. And it should also be little surprise that the brand will suffer immensely when these practices — or the perception of them — are violated.

Of course, that exact thing happened with Chipotle. The brand hasn’t been forthcoming with details around what led to the E.coli outbreak in its restaurants that sickened and hospitalized dozens of people across a number of US states.

Whether that’s because it knows and won’t tell, or doesn’t know at all is irrelevant — this violates its transparent supply chain promise.

That the outbreak even occurred casts considerable doubt over the brand’s environmental standards: contaminated water is a primary source of E.coli bacteria. And it was the image of industrial food practices contaminating water that connected deepest with consumers.

The Chipotle example shows the double-edged sword of virality for brands. Its impassioned plea for better food practices made it the torchbearer for a new kind of restaurant. But what endeared it to consumers subconsciously was its transparency and apparent stance against environmentally damaging practices. The brand violated the consumer trust it had held, and is still suffering from the fallout.

Some may contend that nothing can be done in today’s world of ‘all media is social’. But brand equity is valuable, and there are certainly ways to understand which of a brand’s promises are sacrosanct and should be protected relentlessly throughout the business’ ecosystem, as this example illustrates.

Others may see this as a poor response to a PR crisis response. It is that, but it’s also more. This is a failure of operationalizing a key brand promise. What Chipotle probably didn’t know was just how critical this particular promise was.

But it should have been aware of just how difficult transparent supply chain practices would be in its line of business. The FDA has conducted numerous investigations into what caused the E.coli outbreak at Chipotle. According to its website, “Traceback can be difficult with Mexican-style foods given they are often complex dishes containing multiple ingredients.” It conducted investigations of suppliers but “ultimately, no food item has been identified as causing the outbreak, and by the same token, no food has been ruled out as a cause.”

This is the food equivalent of knowing there’s a landmine in a field, but not being able to locate it. Simply believing it’s there is enough to keep you away. That’s the risk that Chipotle took. And it’s clearly backfired.

The two examples here — our experience with the Microsoft attention span study, and Chipotle’s supply chain challenges — speak to both the power and the potential perils of virality. ‘Going viral’ gets you reach and can get you fame, but it can also cement either a notion in the mind that may be difficult to dislodge, or a promise to consumers that may be impossible to keep.