Viral Storytelling—Mythic Models for Audience Engagement Part VI: “The Power of The Viral Question”


We conclude our XTC series on Viral Storytelling with a quick look at how questions, more than sound bites or “key messages,” can generate real audience engagement and create a longtail effect for marketing and communications campaigns.

To review, we define “Chapter 5: The Viral Question” portion of our story as a provocative, open-ended question designed to generate positive word of mouth around the topics that matter most. And this is important as our study of tech decision makers showed that the number one source of positive buzz is a brilliant question that makes people look smart when they answer it. And that same study found that such discussions had an impact on business priorities and budget line items of a company, as well as on individual purchase decisions.

The potential is impressive, but what makes a viral question powerful? For starters, binary questions are useless. Anything that can be answered with a “yes”, “no” or “I don’t care” is a non-starter. A viral question works because it plays into existing pain, ambition, curiosity or pleasure—it works because it taps into a topic that’s already relevant but frames it in a new way that makes it both fun and productive to answer the question.

And there’s no better place for inspiration for fun and productive questions than to examine the endless supply of not fun and not productive questions that abound around a company and its offerings. So, for example:

  • If your sales force is getting peppered with boring and non-strategic questions on price and commoditization issues, flip the script and ask, “Where are progressive companies unlocking hidden value from proven technologies?”
  • If your IR team is dealing with continued questions around unwanted acquisition rumors, look at the question behind the question and ask, “How do we empower partners, and what are the win-win’s we are creating for our industry?”
  • If reporters continue to draw unhelpful comparisons between your company and the wrong set of competitors, ask the question, “What business are those companies really in, and what’s their real revenue agenda?” and use the response to that question to differentiate your company more intelligently.
  • And if your customers are buying your entire story, but you’re still experiencing excessively long sales cycles and they seem to be stuck on not seeing tangible ROI, ask the question, “If the ROI seems fuzzy here, then what’s the cost of doing nothing? What’s the risk of inaction?”

These questions, posed across multiple channels, can help change the course of a conversation, initiate a new direction in the public dialogue around your company and your category, and engage your audience in a more meaningful discussion that benefits them as much as it benefits your own marketing programs. Popularize these questions in private desk-side briefings with the influencers who matter—reporters, analysts, bloggers, academics, regulators and pundits. Pose these questions at the end of speeches, panel discussions and interviews. Tweet them. Test them with LinkedIn groups. And incorporate them into your internal communications programs.

Not only will you generate some positive word of mouth, you might just generate some truly useful insights from people with a completely different perspective. And when we genuinely get curious about the answers to these viral questions, it’s amazing what we can learn and apply … and perhaps even inspire the next five-chapter narrative campaign.

This concludes our Viral Storytelling Series. For more information about Viral Storytelling, including training modules and case studies, please contact me at