Porter Novelli

(Note: This post originally appeared on the PNConnect Blog)

WHAT IS VIRAL SAMENESS?

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If you follow many news sites on social media, you may have noticed a numbing trend over the past few years. Every site shares the same stories, often with identical angles. Time will cover the same story as Mashable, which is the same story Vox shared earlier, which originated on a Reddit thread. It’s been called “viral sameness,” and it has the effect of taking a piece of web ephemera and mainstreaming it.

It happens for a simple reason: When a story is spreading, readers are going to click somewhere to see what it’s about, and no one wants to leave those page views on the table. Growing social usage means the overall pie is bigger, but everyone’s getting a smaller chunk of that pie. With so much advertising revenue at stake — and with so few alternative business models — there’s a continual race to grab as many readers as possible.

In the long term, these sites give up much of their distinct brand. A publisher may start out with a focus on a central topic or a precise mission statement, but the picture gets fuzzier when it gives attention to ephemeral stories (e.g. how quickly a contestant solved the Wheel of Fortune puzzle) simply because “everyone else is doing it.” The end result is a homogenized media landscape, where everyone is about everything and no one offers a unique value proposition to the audience.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR BRAND PUBLISHERS?

Viral sameness presents a unique opportunity for brands, which don’t have the same priorities as media companies. Brand publishers typically aren’t focused on generating ad revenue; they have goals like building awareness with specific audiences (e.g. potential customers) or driving conversions. With these objectives, a singular editorial mission — like covering a specific industry — is all the more important, and raw page view counts are much less important.

While other media outlets throw everything against the wall to see what sticks, brand publishers have the freedom to remain true to their core editorial values. That’s not to say outside content should never be integrated into a program: Curating material from elsewhere is an important part of a well-rounded strategy, but there’s a much higher bar to clear. Brand publishers who resist viral sameness give their audiences something increasingly rare and valuable: a clear focus, with a unique point of view.

WHEN TO ENGAGE, WHEN TO IGNORE

When deciding whether to share the latest viral story, consider:

  • Is the story related to what you usually talk about? It doesn’t matter if it’s fun, serious or somewhere in between — the core question is whether or not it fits in with the overall editorial focus.
  • Does sharing the story help you meet program goals? For example, will it attract new followers in your target audience, bring in leads, or result in conversions?
  • Is everyone else already doing it? Quite frankly, if a story has already been covered by dozens of other outlets, then are you adding anything unique? If not, sharing the story isn’t likely to bring you or your audience much value.
  • Where does it fall on the list of priorities? It’s counterproductive to jump on viral stories if it means diminishing the attention given to news that’s more directly related to your program’s mission.