How Things Go Viral
We hear the phrase all the time. In movies, articles, magazines. It’s what we secretly wish will happen when we post a Tweet, a Facebook status, or a picture on Instagram.
But how exactly does something “go viral?” What has to happen for a piece of content to get picked up by the masses of the web? As you’d expect, virality is a mystery. That being said, after analyzing thousands of viral posts, we’ve identified a number of things that you can do to maximize your chances of going viral.
For articles and blog posts, the headline is the most important part of the piece. A good headline draws people in, and if they feel that it might draw their friends in, too, they’ll share it. The headline might be the only thing they read before sharing a piece of content.
In fact, web-analytics company Chartbeat concluded that there is “no relationship whatsoever with the amount that the article is shared and the amount of engaged time and attention given to that article.” Meaning, people share things without reading them. Often. Make sure you take a look at our guide to headline writing to make your content as shareable as possible.
Stay in the Loop
Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On believes that readers share content because it buys them “social currency.” By sharing up-to-date, trending topics, the reader aims to prove to the world that he or she is in the know. People want to be “that friend” who always shares the funniest, best and most recent content with his or her friends and followers. Appealing to this ego-driven desire is key.
A second force that Berger believes is the cause of virality is the “trigger.” Triggers are those things that connect the content to our daily lives. For example, Honey Nut Cheerios is more likely to be shared than Disney World. Why? Because we eat breakfast every day, and if you aren’t these people, you’re likely to make a visit to Disney World only once in a blue moon. The more relevant something is to our daily lives, the more likely it is to go viral.
The more gut-wrenching, heart-melting, tear-jerking, a piece can be, the more viral it becomes. A mix of happy and sad creates the perfect storm of catharsis to instigate a share. Upworthy struck a chord with its viewers when writing about Zach Sobiech, a teen musician who died of cancer, but was able to play sold out shows in his last days.
Strangely enough, Berger says that we share articles as an emotional self-defense mechanism. “Arousal is an aversive state, so people want to get out of it by sharing.” This is what psychologist Elaine Hatfield called “emotional contagion.” By sharing an emotionally exciting video (sad or happy), we cast the emotional explosion it wreaks within us onto somebody else, to not feel alone.
Seeding your content across different channels is crucial for getting things to go viral. Posting a video on Youtube and expecting the internet to take notice is like casting a single line into the ocean and expecting to catch a thousand fish. By posting that video on different platforms, you increase the range of your content and therefore increase the likelihood of starting a snowball.
Do you recall the “Alex from target” episode from November 2014? In less than a week, Alex Lee, a Target cashier went from a nobody to having more than 700K followers on Twitter.
It all began when someone snapped a pic of the Bieberesque teen at a Target in Dallas. The pillar Twitter accounts of what is known as the “fangirl demographic” shared the photo, and twitter erupted with the hashtag #AlexFromTarget.
Accounts @NiallWifiPizzas and @5SOSbeliefs, both with over 10,000 followers, followed by @Girlposts, which has 5 million, sparked the fire. After that, the social media masses did what they do best: share, comment, and favorite. A few weeks later, Alex appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Controversy sells, especially when it happens among celebrities. Recently, Seth Rogen tweeted about American Sniper:
American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds.
— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) January 18, 2015
Then, country singer Craig Morgan responded:
Morgan’s response got 24,000+ views and 160,000+ likes, and drove even more attention to the subject. In a way, Morgan capitalized on Rogen’s tweet, which had already gone viral as a result of its controversy. The exchange spawned dozens of articles in its immediate wake, as websites took advantage of something they saw as surefire viral content.
If there’s one thing to take away, it should be that viral marketing is about emotional appeal. Content must excite, arouse, and galvanize the reader. It has to relate to the second-by-second world and it has to hit the right avenues–the right veins–in order for it to spread like wildfire.