Ask yourself, what is the most popular animal on the internet. Cats or dogs? Anyone who has been online during the last five years should be able to answer this question easily, given the abundance of so-called “cat content.” From I Can Has Cheezburger and the LOLcats phenomenon to the recent sweeping popularity of Grumpy Cat, cats seem to be the unofficial mascot of the internet.
But why did the internet “choose” cats? Can cat content add real value to a brand? The overwhelming success of “cat content” can teach content marketers how to provoke a strong, sharable response in viewers.
1. Content sharing is a form of self-presentation
According to research conducted by the British mobile network Three, more than 350,000 cat owners have created an account for their pet on Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks. We all have that friend on Facebook who can’t seem to stop sharing an endless montage of their pet’s life, but have you ever wondered what drives this compulsion to share pet photos?
The Three study revealed that a fifth of the people who created a social networking account for their pet did so because they believe their pet is more interesting than they are. People long to be perceived as interesting, and if the photo they snapped of their cat doing something weird was the most interesting part of their day, so be it. Cats are the ideal muse for successful social networking content because they are dynamic, expressive, and relatable.
For Content Marketers, this means…
- keep it engaging, visual, and relevant
- aim to provoke conversations about the product, the topic, or the product’s relevance to the viewer’s life
- keep your content relevant to your users’ needs and questions
- remember that people are more likely to share content that is both interesting and useful to them
2. Create visual content that is personal, appealing, and instantly sharable
With the increasing prominence of smartphones, it has never been easier to snap a photo and upload it to your social networks in a matter of seconds. For example, “selfies,” or photos of yourself, taken by yourself, are a massively popular trend. But in the same study referenced above, Three discovered that British internet users share over 3.8 million photos and videos of cats each day. This number grows even more staggering when viewed in comparison to the 1.4 million selfies that were shared in the same time span. Simply put, photos of cats are four times more popular than selfies.
Visual marketing dominates social media. Visual content communicates information efficiently, and users often prefer it to blocks of text. Sites like Pinterest and Tumblr are popular platforms for visual content like infographics, GIFs, and memes. Visual content is also a strong predictor of high levels of user engagement with your content. Humor is also an excellent tool to differentiate your brand from your competitors. You can use it to break the ice when introducing a normally tedious topic, or grab your readers’ attention by relating to their interests. Most importantly, be authentic and honest.
Cats don’t know how to be anything but themselves, which is part of what makes their antics so funny. Similarly, take the time to consider what is actually humorous about your brand or topic (and remember, humor is not appropriate for all brands), and connect that to your objectives for your content. Make sure to use a consistent comedic voice to entertain your target audience and keep them interested in your content.
3. Find your niche audience and play to their interests.
One answer to the question of “Why cats, not dogs?” is that for cat owners, an opportunity to socialize at a place like a dog park isn’t available to them. The internet is the equivalent of a dog park for cat owners. Through social networks, blogs, and other community sites, cat owners finally have a platform to share stories, photos, and videos of their beloved pets in a social context.
If you are targeting a niche audience, it is crucial that you understand their cultural shorthand. For instance, the cats vs. dogs debate can be seen as a metaphor for the way internet users view their relationship with a mainstream world that doesn’t quite understand them. Exchanging and promoting cat content has become a unique social and cultural shorthand for internet users. It is important for you to deeply understand your target audience, and visit online spaces where they spend their time to see what they are actually talking about.
Conversely, the stereotype of the “cat lady,” knitting alone in an apartment swarming with cats, is fast disappearing, and the entire world is united by a shared love of cute “cat content.” If aiming for a broad audience, try to make your content accessible to different cultures. For example, the Nyan Cat viral video exploded across screens in 2011, trailing a rainbow behind it. Nyan Cat (whose name is derived from Nya, the Japanese word for “meow”) was the fifth most-viewed Youtube video in 2011. Even though few people had the cultural knowledge necessary to understand the origin of Nyan Cat’s moniker, this didn’t prevent millions of people across the globe from enjoying the surreal video of poptart cat soaring through the sky.
If you include a cross-cultural audience in your marketing strategy, you must consider what is significant in several market segments. The most successful content will take a dynamic, cross-cultural approach and encourage interaction from a broad variety of users.
4. Create content hubs to unify your target audience
Did you know that internet cat videos have a dedicated film festival of their own? Now in its third year, the Internet Cat Video Festival was created by curator Scott Stulen in association with the Walker Art Center. The 2012 festival in Minneapolis, Minnesota attracted 10,000 people – the biggest gathering in museum history. Will Braden, who won the People’s Choice award at the first festival for his video of his existential cat, Henri: Le Chat Noir, has made a career out of his cat videos, including monetized YouTube ads, an online merchandise store, and even a book deal.
As these overwhelmingly successful examples demonstrate, cat videos have an ability to unite people in a unique way, and this level of audience connection is a content marketer’s dream come true. Content hubs, like the Internet Cat Video Festival, provide a valuable platform for connecting with your target audience. By creating a specific forum for users to engage with their favorite topics, content marketers provide value to their users and gain useful insights in the process.
Google Trends graph showing the upward trend for the word “cat.”
5. Increase the probability of your content going viral through innovation, not imitation
Research conducted by Kevin Allocca of Google’s Youtube Trends site indicates that searches for “dog” on YouTube result in roughly 2 million results – half a million more results than the same search for “cat.” However, cat videos have astounding power that dog videos don’t have. For example, on Buzzfeed, the viral view count confirms this, with the average cat post getting approximately 9,000 shares, and the average dog post only 5,000. Content marketers must ask: What are the defining characteristics of “cat content” that make it likely to be shared?
As mentioned previously, cats are unpredictable creatures, and cat content often features an element of surprise. Leverage the power of the unexpected to make your content stand out. Try to gain an early-adopter advantage. Cats took over internet culture long before dogs even began to gain a foothold. By staying on the cutting edge of news and trends in your field, you can gain an advantage over those who come along after the trend has reached its saturation point.
6. Virality often depends on emotionally compelling content.
The Grumpy Cat meme is an outlet for expressing socially unacceptable sentiments. Lil Bub (as seen in Vice documentary Lil Bub & Friendz) provokes sympathy due to a combination of birth defects that highlight his vulnerability, small size, and undeniable cuteness. One reason people often share “cat content” is because it provokes a strong emotional response. The emotional aspect of virality cannot be easily summarized, but research indicates that physiological arousal plays a major role. Content that provokes low-arousal emotions such as sadness is shared less often, and content that provokes high-arousal emotions such as anxiety or awe is more likely to be shared (Source: Berger).
In general, positive content is more likely to be shared than negative content. For an in-depth discussion of strategic emotional marketing, click here. Content marketers should strive to craft content that evokes emotions that are high arousal, thus increasing the virality potential of the content. For example, GoPro released a video clip of a firefighter who was wearing a GoPro HD Hero3 camera attached to his helmet while resuscitating an unconscious kitten that he rescued from a burning house. Readers propelled the story into a feel-good viral hit and the video received over 5 million views in one week.
However, most news outlets left out the sad ending: despite the best efforts of the firefighter, the kitten died a few hours later. When Gawker ran the story with the sad ending included, their content did not provoke any sort of viral impact. When striving to use emotional marketing principles correctly, it is crucial to remember that not all emotions will provoke a sharing response. Content that provokes a strong, high-arousal response like happiness or anger is much more likely to be shared than a story that is depressing.
7. Avoid overly aggressive or formulaic content strategies
Another reason for the popularity of cats is that we have engineered them to be appealing to us over centuries. Cats have highly emotive, expressive faces, and in the words of Ben Huh: “We have created weapons of mass cuteness.” Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger Network, the popularity of “cat content” reflects broad socioeconomic shifts, as people who delay having kids until their early thirties now fill that extra childless decade with pets.In an evolutionary sense, cats resemble human offspring in several ways- including big eyes, small noses, and dome-shaped heads, and research suggests that cats trigger strong, subconscious nurturing instincts in humans.
However, anyone who’s ever owned a cat can tell you that a cute cat is not necessarily a cat who wants attention. Cats generally reward you with their company only if you pretend you aren’t very interested in them. Cat scientists at the University of Vienna proved this assumption, revealing that the more neurotic the cat owner, the more avoidance behavior the cat displayed. This avoidance cycle is echoed in the failure of many marketing campaigns. When brands are desperate for attention, their marketing strategies are often overly aggressive, which annoys and frustrates their target audience. The most successful internet content, including “cat content,” lacks any commercial slant.
Much like the way cats avoid humans who want to touch them TOO badly, content marketers should be wary of using formulaic, overtly manipulative content promotion strategies.
Cat Content Spotlight: Three’s #SingItKitty Campaign
Created by Wieden & Kennedy London, the #SingItKitty advertisement was produced to promote brand awareness of the Three mobile phone network, and it is a superb example of “the power of cute.” The video features two adorable protagonists: a cat called Simcris Bronte Bronjoy and a little girl named Jolie Forrest. The cat, wearing a white mustache, and the little girl sing along to the 1985 anthem ‘We Built This City’ by Starship as they zoom around the neighborhood on a pink bicycle. The viewer response was immediate, and the video drew over 2.5million hits on YouTube in the first few days. Upon the writing of this article, it stands at 5,478,000 hits. What were the reasons for this commercial’s remarkable success?
First, the brand didn’t simply throw together a random, silly video and hope it would succeed. The brand had experienced prior success through their similarly cute #DancePonyDance campaign last year, and in the words of Three’s marketing director Tom Malleschitz, “As the network built for the internet we understand people’s behaviour online and know that cute, silly, or unexpected images and videos are what make people tick.” The brand took an introspective look at their defining goals, as well as their audience’s needs and preferences, before producing the campaign.
The 60-second ad launched on ITV1’s This Morning, and was given a premier spot throughout the first weekend it aired. Three leveraged a well-developed social media presence to boost content in the early stages. Three uploaded the video to Facebook immediately, and 950,000 people interacted with the post through likes, shares, and video views.
Viewers could visit an innovative web-based app to create a personalized face-morphing video that put them in the starring role, which they were encouraged to share under the hashtag #SingItKitty. By sharing the video, viewers presented themselves to their followers as fun-loving, quirky, and nostalgic. Three also distributed merchandise like #SingItKitty iPhone cases to influential bloggers in targeted audience sectors, and released a behind-the-scenes video to further captivate viewers.
According to BrandRepublic, “Overall, 40 per cent of the “#SingItKitty” campaign’s referral traffic came from Facebook. The brand saw a click-through rate of 4.09 per cent, which is approximately six times higher than other digital media used for the campaign. There were 46,100 shares and 3,422 additional viral shares. Three leveraged a well-developed social media presence to boost content in the early stages. They also distributed merchandise like #SingItKitty iPhone cases to influential bloggers in targeted audience sectors, and released a behind-the-scenes video to further captivate viewers.
Another reason for the ad’s success was its emotionally compelling content. The epic song and cute childhood details stirred up feelings of nostalgia and joyful exuberance. By trusting in the emotional impact of their subtly branded ad, Three avoiding alienating their audience with overt commercialization.
This case study provides several key insights for replicating Three’s success. Follow-up research indicated that using a hashtag in television advertisements was an important factor in the success of the campaign. Additionally, Three’s strong presence on social media fueled the ad’s early momentum. But most importantly, the #SingItKitty ad was thoughtfully-produced, authentically humorous, and sparked a powerful emotional reaction in viewers.
There are many facets of a simple cat picture that provoke a strong, sharable response in viewers. The Cheezeburger Network raised 30 million dollars in funding last year, and a large part of that valuation is attributable to the “cat content” at the core of their brand. In fact, the internet’s predilection for cats is so strong that when computer scientists at Google’s X Lab built a brain simulation comprised of 16,000 computer processors and let it browse YouTube, it began to search for cats. They scientists never said, “This is a cat,” but the computer began to recognize them nonetheless.
But can a single cat power a brand or propel a marketing campaign to stardom? The answer is yes – if done correctly. The success of marketing campaigns like the Grumpy Cat ad for Purina Friskies (over 1,600,000 views), Keyboard Cat’s ad for Wonderful Pistachios (over 2,500,000 views) and Mercedes-Benz aerodynamic cat commercial (over 660,000 views) prove this. Understanding how to use “cat content” correctly can help content marketers extend their brand outreach and avoid trite, copycat strategies.
- dynamic, relatable content is the most sharable
- a consistent, authentic sense of humor is a great way to distinguish your brand’s voice
- a deep understanding of your target audience and their needs, desires, and communication style is essential
- content hubs are a powerful audience aggregator
- in order to provoke a viral response, you should create content that causes high-arousal emotions in your readers