Seth Godin regularly refers to the concept of the sneezer: a person with large social influence and the power to spread a new product or idea to a large base of people. Such a person can be a popular tech personality like Michael Elgan or Robert Scoble, or an influential reviewer/blogger. If a sneezer likes what they just tried out, they will send the message out to their followers, the theory being that this will convince many of their followers to actually read/use the item in question. From there those followers then tell their friends and hopefully the item in question spreads like wildfire. Appealing to a sneezer then supposedly gives any new product or story that initial momentum it needs to reach a critical mass of people.
However, now that influence is becoming more decentralised to the "average" person, the power of the sneezer is diminishing. Where before we would all wait for some important source (like an influential reviewer, journalist or writer) to recommend a product or utility to us, we now share and listen to our peers more than ever...often before listening to any sneezer. Social media has been the catalyst for this tranformation. I was hankering to watch The Avengers for instance, solely because my friends kept tweeting about how good it was. I didn't read a single review or get the opinion of any acclaimed critic.
In a report by Jon Steinberg (President of Buzzfeed) and Jack Krawczyk (Senior Product Marketing Manager at Stumbleupon), Jack and John (sounds much better than Steinberg and Krawczyk) found that sharing behaviour "mirrors the physical world and runs contrary to the marketing practice of seeking so-called influentials."
Sharing on a viral scale takes place through many small groups, rather than a single status post or tweet from a so-called influencer. "While influential people may be able to reach a wide audience, their impact is short-lived. Content goes viral when it spreads beyond a particular sphere of influence and spreads across the social web via ordinarily people sharing with their friends."
Jack and Jon looked at the 50 stories that received the most Facebook traffic since mid 2007 on BuzzFeed. The median ratio of views to shares was just 9 to 1. This means that for every Facebook share, nine people visited the story. The biggest stories on Facebook were the result of several intimate shares, and not just one share followed by hundreds of thousands of clicks.
Twitter had an even lower ratio at 5 to 1. This is probably due to the fact that people tweet much more rapidly and often compared to status updates made on Facebook, meaning a tweet is typically easily lost in a sea of other tweets. The ratio for Reddit, with focussed stories on its front page, was 36 to 1.
What this means to you
Something goes viral if each person, on an individual basis, finds it worthwhile. Therefore when you create something, create it for the individual, not for the masses or to appeal to some specific "influencer," because viral sharing happens one person, one share at a time. "In looking to get content shared, marketers and publishers should focus on content that will resonate and get people talking to their colleagues, friends and families. Social media is about engaging people in conversations that mirror the offline world, as opposed to chasing mythical influentials."
No longer do you need to hope for that influencer or journalist to smile upon you, because in this world of decentralised influence, each one of us holds the power to make a story reach any corner of the globe.