FEATURE15 December 2014

Herd mentality


2014 was the year of the viral challenge. Ali Barnes of Incite discusses how brands and researchers can understand and leverage this new behavioural dynamic.


It’s also changed the way the people consume news, engage with brands and countless other processes, but one of the most intriguing examples of behaviour changes induced by social media is this year’s viral fundraising phenomenon.

Charities were hit hard by the impact the recession had on consumers and faced increasing challenges securing donations, so this new viral fundraising trend could not have come at a more welcome time. The opportunities it offers are huge, as Cancer Research UK and the ALS Association will undoubtedly attest to.

Earlier this year Cancer Research UK found itself the beneficiary of £8 million in 6 days as a result of #nomakeupselfie. Something that began as an argument at the Oscars was transformed into a viral trend by 10,000s of women posting pictures of themselves wearing no make-up in order to raise awareness of breast cancer.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, which started in the US, became associated with the ALS Association when golfer Chris Kennedy challenged a relative, with a strong personal connection with ALS, to take the challenge or make a donation. The trend went viral and ALS donations quickly exceeded $100 million. It also crossed the Atlantic, raising £6 million for the MND Association in the UK.

Both these examples and countless others are taking advantage of a key behaviour change principle: the Herd Instinct. They harness the instinct after which Mark Earls named his book Herd: people’s innate willingness to copy others. This describes that having a simple behavioural template to copy means a behaviour can go viral. In these cases, by earning the right to nominate others to take the challenge next, participants spread the challenge to people around them, meaning it spread quickly and organically.

How exactly can organisations take advantage of this new behavioural dynamic? And what traits will resonate with consumers and encourage them to react? By applying the principles of behaviour change, we can see a number of ways to take advantage of unplanned viral trends on social media and how other sectors can learn from the charity industry’s recent successes.

  • Provide a behavioural template to copy – a simple action with a simple message that involves little effort both in terms of execution and dissemination
  • Make people feel good about sharing – behavioural psychology suggests that positive emotions lead to sharing behaviour. We’ve seen here that charities have affected donor behaviour through communication which makes the donor feel good about themselves, and in doing so trigger the act of sharing
  • People love to be rewarded – whether it is saying ‘thank you’ for a donation or additional support/offers following a purchase. This can open up a dialogue, develop a relationship and lead to greater potential for continued engagement

As insight professionals, how should we leverage this understanding of the herd instinct to maximise client activities in the social media sphere? A few potential applications spring to mind:

1. Applying a behaviour change lens to consumer understanding research is crucial – which behavioural biases are driving their actions and how can we work with/disrupt these
2. Exploring which relevant behavioural template could go viral either to promote, endorse or support a brand/cause
3. Uncover what incentives are the most motivating to reward consumers with

Viral trends on social media offer charities and businesses alike an opportunity to capitalise on the creativity and inspirational endeavours of others and indeed people’s herd instinct. However, to take advantage of these opportunities there is a need to be primed, poised and ready to pounce – before someone else does.

Ali Barnes is a principal at Incite Marketing Planning