Four tips for online content that spreads like peanut butter

After a three-month internship with Neo, I recently took a few weeks to reflect on what I’ve discovered and write a dissertation for my degree.

What I ended up focusing on was how we as communication planners make sure that important messages stick with people online; a space where the top ten best Harlem Shake videos get more attention than earthquakes in Nepal.

To understand more about 21st century’s online culture I got help from one of the big guys; Internet guru and cultural theorist Henry Jenkins.

Jenkins conceptualises online behaviour with the term ‘Participatory Culture’. This culture emerged from (amongst others) online science fiction fan communities, where fans started to produce their own content of the given science fiction universe, discussing it, and circulating it.

This kind of behaviour spread across the Internet where users have become “prosumers”; media producers as well as consumers. What this really means is that a big part of the power lies with the audience, who collectively decide what content gets circulated around the web and what doesn’t.

This all complicates things when trying to distribute content on social media, as it’s easy to think in the broadcast mentality that was so dominant until recently, and to treat online users as consumers. We try to create meaningful and impactful content that sticks with those experiencing it, but as the behaviour has changed so must our mindset.

A new model of doing so has not yet been established, but in his book “Spreadable Media” Jenkins (in the company of Sam Ford and Joshua Green) suggests a new system of thinking, that we can apply to our traditional ways of understanding online content distribution.

This new thinking system is referred to as “Spreadability” and focuses on the mechanisms that make content travel online. Because, the actual spreadability of the content is what makes it stick with the audience – just like peanut butter on bread, you spread it to make it stick.

The following four tips pick out what seem to me to be the most relevant ways for professional communicators to apply Jenkins’ thinking.

Tip 1: Be aware that the Internet is unpredictable

Crazy things happen on the Internet because a large number of online users contribute to make it happen. From Chocolate Rain to the Ice Bucket Challenge to the convict/model Jeremy Meeks, Internet phenomena of all shapes happen in unpredictable ways. Acknowledging that things often happen in uncontrollable ways is crucial, and accepting the fact that we can’t always predict how or what content will spread.

Tip 2: Make your content easy to engage with

Despite this uncertainty, we do sometimes see a pattern of the content that wins circulation; it’s often content that people find easy or interesting to engage with. Hashtags are easier to pick up than a poster and opens up different ways of interpretation. Ones that inspire users to create the actual content also provide a way for users to feel ownership of the content and message, and dissolve the distinction of broadcast-minded sender and recipient roles.

A great example of this was how Mind took part in the response to Asda’s so-called ‘mental patient’ Halloween costume.

When Asda released the Halloween costume people started to post pictures of themselves in their everyday clothes under the hashtag #MentalPatient in response. Mind joined in and re-tweeted the creative responses, and even contributed with their own meme by photoshopping one of their staff into the frame of the Asda add.

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Tip 3: Listen to your audience

Quantitative data that answer questions about audience demographics, traffic peak times, and popularity in numbers are fine, but listening to what people have to say is where the real value lies. The initiative for the response to the Asda Holloween costume came from online users who created a grassroots campaign, that Mind observed and took part in. Listening implies an active process of absorbing what is being said in order to respond to it. Following conversations and trends of your audience group therefore provide key information about when and how to create content.

Tip 4: Be participatory yourself

Professional communication planners are online users as well. So engaging with trending phenomena and reproducing them in creative ways, for different purposes, can resonate with the cultural pattern of online users. Listening to your audience and trending topics is a must for catching these golden opportunities.

An inspiring example of a charity taking this kind of action was the South African Salvation Army’s campaign “Why is it so hard to see black and blue?”, where they used the internet-breaking optical-tricky white and golden dress to highlight their message about violence against women.

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The Internet is full of opportunities and people are happy to spread and even contribute content. Memes and trends might be out there, only needing a creative twist to convert them into a powerful message that works for your cause.

What we see in the Internet age of participation is that clever content no longer solely happens in the communication planner’s office, but can come from those people you hope to address. Taking a collaborative, creative, and inclusive approach will help your social media content spread and stay with people.

Image credits

Salvation Army SA dress campaign:

White and gold dress image:

Mind’s Mental Patient Fancy Dress Costume mock-up (to the right):

Twitter user’s Mental Patient Fancy Dress Costume mock-up (to the left):