Marketing Book Summary: Viralnomics

Marketing thought leaders are prolific, and it can be hard to keep up with the most recent developments in marketing. That’s why, each month, we bring you an in-depth marketing book summary. This month’s summary is Viralnomics, by Jonathan Goodman.

The premise of this book is simple: social media changes nothing.

That is not to say that social media is not important, or that it can’t have an effect on your marketing and business.

But the claim at hand is that social media does not reflect anything new in terms of human behavior. People have always had the urge to share certain kinds of information, and the first amusing cat photographs were produced in the 1870s.

What has changed is the specific platforms that people use to share and communicate.

That is the claim of Viralnomics: How to Get People to Want to Talk About You, by Jonathan Goodman. Social media is valuable, but understanding the impulses that cause people to use it is far more valuable. As the author says:

“The biggest mistake that you can make is to attempt to keep up with new innovations before taking the time to understand why people use those innovations.”

With that caveat in mind, the author is a serious advocate of social media marketing, and the goal of this book is to teach its effective use:

“Much has been said about the marketing benefit of social media related to finding, targeting, and communicating with your audience. To me, this benefit is secondary. We work hard every day to ignore marketing so that we can go home and put our feet up to relax. And when we do this, we go on social media. It’s a place where our subconscious takes over. It’s a place where we let our emotions dictate our actions. It’s a place where we’re more open to persuasion than anywhere else.”

In five parts, Viralnomics tackles social media marketing as a function of human nature. The sections are:

  • The Cast
  • What’s Going On
  • Starting to Put the Pieces in Place
  • Influence
  • Tactics

Part One: The Cast

People are unique, sure. But they also fall into specific categories on social media. Goodman identifies four buckets of people that exist on social media:

  • The Carpenter Ants: The silent majority. They don’t comment or share, but they are there reading.
  • The Road Builders: People who make connections and share content simply because it is interesting or relevant to them.
  • The Sea Lions: They aren’t huge influencers themselves, but they comment on and follow influencers.
  • The Diamond in the Rough: They aren’t in the spotlight themselves, but have some control over media coverage or online content platforms.
  • The Guy:” This is the expert. Your goal is to become this person.

When you invest in social media marketing, these personas are useful in different ways.

Carpenter Ants will follow you, but you’ll never hear from them and barely know they exist. They are probably not your target on social media.

Road Builders and Sea Lions, on the other hand, can be useful. By reaching road builders and prompting them to talk about your product, you can generate an organic buzz and conversation.

Sea Lions have only moderate influence themselves, but if they decide to follow you, they are likely to be highly engaged. They may become customers, share your content, or even mention you in their comments to other influencers.

The Diamond in the Rough is an influential person, but they themselves are not in the spotlight. They may be a writer for a publication, or an organizer within a relevant community. As such, they have influence, but are easier to get in touch with than major celebrities.

Finally there is the expert, “the Guy.” Your goal is to position yourself as the expert in your specific niche. In doing so, you will be more likely and more able to connect with other experts.

Part Two: What’s Going On

To be heard on social media, you need to reach people in their “feed.”

The feed is any forum in which people receive their information. Today that often means Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other platforms.

The feed is powerful for two reasons:

  • Our feeds are subject to “filter bubbles.” Because we tend to filter views we find upsetting, what generally remains in the feed is relatively trusted information.
  • Our feeds are filled with people we trust, including friends and family.

If your content, product, service, or other offering can break into these feeds, it is therefore likely to be trusted.

The challenge then becomes: how can you get yourself shared, so that you appear in people’s feed?

Goodman provides three reasons that content is shared (other authors have listed more factors):

  • It’s funny
  • It’s used to signal that someone is a member of a group
  • It’s used to advance an individual’s status or online persona

In order to appear in the feed, create content that fulfills the latter two conditions; content that is purely entertainment usually has low value to a brand.

The feed is powerful. It is, in a sense, a system of referral. If friends or respected leaders share something, it must be at least worth checking out.

Part Three: Starting to Put the Pieces in Place

As you begin to put the pieces in place for your social media marketing, it’s important to be consistent.

Goodman believes that we should spend more time on Facebook (or Twitter, or LinkedIn, or ResearchGate; whichever platform is relevant). He argues that it is impossible to generate viral success on cue. Rather, you improve your chances of virality by posting the right kind of content on a consistent basis.

With this in mind, Goodman recommends doing two things regularly:

  • Promote others: Even if they are not in your immediate space, promote content, information, or services from others. You may not want to promote your competitors, but sharing news from outlets or influencers can build relationships and your own credibility.
  • Be consistently helpful: The author recommends posting advice related to your industry regularly. Some advice will be picked up by people you didn’t even know were following you.

In building your online presence, the author highlights the most common social media mistake businesses make:

“The biggest mistake that the owner of a business professional page can make is to put the focus on the business or brand and not on the message or idea that it represents.”

Make your social media presence about advancing your mission rather than your products. Of course, you can share information about products, as well, but doing that in the context of a larger story increases its effectiveness.

As you produce content for social media, know that it is no longer enough to “just” produce good content. There is so much content out there that users have trouble distinguishing the good from the bad without help. When creating content:

  • “Make it good
  • Know who it’s for
  • Know how ‘they’ benefit from it
  • Hook them with that benefit right away”

As you create content, again think about how your content promotes sharing. The author argues that online action is driven by “IIIAF:”

“Every action that’s taken online is driven by the powerful desire to appear intelligent, intellectual, interesting, attractive, or funny.”

Part Four: Influence

At this point in the book, the fundamentals of sharing have been covered. How can you actually influence people using social media?

Having a powerful influence online is about providing value in the most efficient way possible. Don’t make readers jump through hoops to reach your content or receive its benefits. Provide information and value up front and you will eventually win customers.

Although social media marketing is often perceived as a fast-paced endeavor, the goal of social media marketing is a long-term one. As the author states:

“The most valuable asset that any marketer can have is not to provide information, but to become a trusted entity so that they become “the guy” when someone is looking for a solution to their specific problem.”

When you share your information and solutions, they should have the following three elements (in order) and rely on the below four-step formula (both are quoted from the author).

The key elements of a marketing message are:

  • Emotion/benefits
  • Value/steps to solving
  • Logic/features

Online messages capture audiences through an emotional appeal, deliver value through an outline of specific steps to solve a problem, and only then list detailed features of a product or offer.

The format of an online marketing message should be:

  • Headline
  • Lede
  • Steps to solving
  • Call to action

Every piece of content should begin with a compelling headline and lede, follow up with steps to solving a specific problem, and end in a call to action. Creating appealing, easily consumable information is a matter of these steps.

As a final note in the influence section, online comments can often become heated. Under the protection of anonymity, or at least a screen, people are far more willing to comment aggressively.

In responding to these comments, the author recommends some ground rules:

  • Never engage with negative comments on forums where they represent the majority opinion. It will not go well.
  • Do not become similarly aggressive in response to aggressive comments. Maintain your composure and professionalism.
  • Don’t try to convince the commenter of your viewpoint; convince the other people, reading both sets of comments, that you are right.

Part Five: Tactics

In part five, Goodman presents a collection of loosely organized tactics that can be used to build on the foundation from the rest of the book.

When you produce content, whether it is a blog, video, status update, or something else, there are tactical principles to keep in mind.

First, exclusion. Of course, you want to designate a target audience. But equally important is the people that you are explicitly not trying to reach with your offerings.

Paradoxically, shrinking your pool of “potential” customers increases your supply of “actual” customers. By focusing on a narrower set of problems, you can more easily become the go-to resource for your audience.

Blogging is the largest and most encompassing tactic Goodman recommends, and he shares these principles to keep in mind:

  • Your blog should speak to a specific target audience and specifically not speak to other audiences.
  • You should focus on one medium at a time; establish your presence first, then diversify.
  • Your content must in some way differentiate you from competitors and from other content that is competing for attention (even from other industries)
  • Perceived quality is as important as quality. Length (longer is more convincing), sources, and expert quotes all boost perceived quality.
  • Every good blog has an emotional appeal (for virality), a value-add, and a call-to-action.
  • Promotion is as important or more important than actually creating content. Great content is easier to promote, but still needs promotion.
  • “People buy people;” a personal connection will help sell your products
  • You don’t need to talk to customers on social, necessarily. Talk to people that are passionate about the same things you are (and customers will come as a result).


If Viralnomics needed to be summed up in one sentence it would be: “buttons change; people don’t.”

Understanding that social media is a function of human behavior opens the door to effectively using it for marketing. Goodman does not provide a play-by-play approach to increasing your LinkedIn followers, and he won’t teach you how to moderate a Twitter chat.

But by following these principles, you can position yourself as an influencer and force within your industry.