In the beginning, blogging was the province of a select opinionated few. Today, it's an essential tool in almost any organization's marketing toolkit. You blog, you promote the blogs via social media, thereby luring potential customers to your web site, where they can buy your products or services--or at least fork over their contact info. 

The result, of course, is that many companies are now confronting the same problems that media executives have fretted about for decades: Numbers. Ratings. Popularity. How to get as many online viewers or readers as possible. After all, online spectators are now, essentially, sales leads. So the question for most organizations becomes: How can you get more people to digest your content and become potential customers? 

The Trouble With Online Ratings

A few problems emerge, however, when organizations try to court online audiences with dare-to-be-great blog content. "Sometimes something that is great is met with silence too if it doesn't drop at the right time, have the right headline, or have the right tone to invite interaction," regretted one longtime blogger earlier this week. 

That may sound like the bitter regret of a starving artist or service journalist, but it is, in fact, the lament of WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg--the man who invented the world's most popular blogging tool. (WordPress powers 50 million web sites, or 20 percent of the entire web.) "Every experienced blogger has a story of something they spend a few minutes on and toss out casually going viral, a one-hit wonder that makes your stats in future months and years puny in comparison," he writes. 

The Herding Mentality

It's one thing for Mullenweg to dislike the irrational means by which some posts get wildly popular while others flounder. It's another when professors begin proving the irrationality with actual research. Sinan Aral, an associate professor of information technology and marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management, did just this in a recent article for the MIT Sloan Management Review. 

Specifically, Aral and his colleagues performed an experiment in which they manipulated the online ratings of news articles on a news-aggregation site. They demonstrated that positive manipulations, in particular, led to a "runaway bandwagon effect" which "dramatically affects future ratings." The overall point of Aral's article is that, when it comes to online ratings, herding is a provable reality. Going viral doesn't just happen because a piece of content is cool or funny or novel or fascinating. It happens because the system of online ratings is one that brings out the herding mentality in all of us.    

What This Means for Marketing Tactics

For marketing leaders, there is one big takeaway from all this: 

When writing blog content, keep your mission--and your ideal reader/customer--at the top of your mind. The systems and online networks through which some posts accumulate high ratings is full of surprises and aberrations. So if a lazy piece of content gets great ratings, don't recalibrate your entire system to mimic that post's success. Likewise, if your high-concept white paper gets no traction, that doesn't mean you should stop writing high-concept white papers. Focus on what lures or impresses paying customers, rather than what lures or impresses everyone. And focus on the message you want your missives to convey. Any organization can post a cute cat picture or a celebrity snapshot to get a spike in ratings. Not any organization can author a game-changing white paper.