Oxford Media Works

The Viral News Cycle

September 10, 2007

The Viral News Cycle

It’s no secret that news cycles are shrinking. They have been ever since the advent of 24 hour cable news. The Internet only serves to shrink news cycles further. At some point in the near future the Onion’s 24 second news cycle won’t seem quite so funny.

Traditional media outlets have been struggling to adapt their formats in a world where their audience already knows the news. Meanwhile, communications professionals of all varieties are trying new strategies for disseminating their messages to audiences facing information overload.

While media organizations have been focused on competing in a world of increasing competition and decreasing audience attention span, a complex social media ecosystem has emerged to present us with an entirely new type of news cycle — the viral news cycle.

Blogs, social news aggregators, podcasts, and web video have proven to be a highly effective platform for propagating news, in a manner that couldn’t be more different from traditional media. While traditional news cycles offer a top down dissemination of information, viral news cycles have emerged as the result of news audiences sharing and filtering news directly with their peers.

In many respects, the viral news cycle exists in an entirely different dimension from the traditional news cycle. Traditional news cycles are linear, viral news cycles are jagged and unpredictable as stories work their way through a complex mesh of social media nodes.

Social news aggregators like Digg and Reddit have the power to expose even the most obscure news items to incredibly large audiences. As a result, stories that would never be covered by traditional media are reaching a global audience, and stories that are already well documented by mainstream media are receiving a wider range of analysis and interpretation.

There are many well known examples of seemingly minor stories gaining mainstream media coverage after first receiving exposure in the social media realm. One recently example is the story of an airline customer and the bad experience he had flying on Spirit Airlines.

Alex Rudloff’s sad tale of poor customer service, compounded by a personal insult that was inadvertently emailed to him by the company’s CEO, probably wouldn’t have made it into his hometown newspaper in the old days. Thanks to social media and the viral news cycle, Rudloff became something of a minor celebrity and his story is now known far and wide. After making the front page of Reddit the story was picked up by blogs, then eventually mainstream media outlets.

This story is a classic example how social media empowers consumers to become both news creators and news distributors. The Spirit Air CEO told his employees to “let him [Rudloff] tell the world how bad we are”, and that’s exactly what Rudloff did. The CEO didn’t expect the world to listen. Chances are he wasn’t even aware that it was possible for a single consumer to reach such a wide audience with his complaint. That’s the power of the viral news cycle.

In the old days unhappy customers told all of their friends about a bad consumer experience. Increasingly consumers are now using their blogs to tell their friends, and the world, about their bad consumer experiences. The best (as in worst) stories are reaching a huge and receptive audience of networked consumers. If you thought negative word of mouth was bad, it can be catastrophic when it hits the blogosphere.

One interesting aspect of the Spirit Airlines story is that it runs counter to the widely held belief that only A-List bloggers can reach a large audience. There’s a common misconception that a blog has to be in the Technorati Top 100 to have a substantial impact. That couldn’t be further from the truth. While it’s true that the top bloggers tend to break stories more consistently, social news aggregators provide a platform that allows even novice bloggers to reach a huge audience almost instantaneously.

There are a number of lessons here for businesses of all varieties. Executives and business owners would do well to keep the following in mind:

  • Your customers are more influential now than they have ever been before. They’re networked and they’re communicating directly with each other. In a world of pervasive social media it is no longer possible to control the flow of information. It’s much easier to treat your customers with respect and do the right thing.
  • Social media is a legitimate force that can have a significant impact on your business (for better or worse). It’s time to start taking social media seriously, just as you would more traditional forms of media.
  • If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to start learning more about social media. Make sure you, or someone in your organization, really understands the social media ecosystem — not only the blogs in your specific industry, but also social bookmarking sites, social news aggregators, and even more general social networks. When working in the social media realm, there’s no substitute for a deep knowledge of how the various forms of social media work and interact.
  • It’s important to add social media outlets to the list of traditional media sources that you monitor for references to your company name, key employees, brand names, and service offerings. While a small mention on a seemingly obscure blog may not seem important, there’s no telling how far that mention might reverberate.

Viral news cycles and tradition news cycles are not mutually exclusive — they feed on each other and interact in unpredictable ways. Neither is going away any time soon, so it’s important to understand and work with both.

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