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16 Mar 2017

How does content 'go viral'?

Inbound Marketing

Over the past ten years, the meaning of the word ‘viral’ has transformed substantially. In the early 2000s, if you heard the term viral then you’d probably start to worry about your health. Today? If you hear the term viral, you’re probably thinking about a piece of content - usually video, often images and sometimes articles.

Due to the progressive rise of things ‘going viral’ the question, “how does content go viral?” has been surprisingly overlooked. Despite this, the question is still an important one, and the answer bears much value to marketers.

Dictionary.com describes the term viral as, ‘becoming very popular by circulating quickly from person to person, especially through the Internet: the most memorable viral videos; This book is already viral two weeks before its official publication date.’

We think of this as a little reductive, but we’ll get into our own explanation later. First, let's take a look at the foundations of content virality.

The first viral video

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The first viral video is generally considered to be the video called Numa Numa, you’ve probably seen it in some form since it was posted in December 2004. It has received over 700-million views, has been parodied by South Park, has been used by EE in a campaign and Gary Brolsma (the ‘Numa Numa guy’) has been placed at #1 on the list of 40 Greatest Internet Superstars.

Looking at the reason this video went viral is probably more interesting than the actual video because - and sorry for this, YouTube nostalgists - it isn’t actually a very good video, at least by today’s standards.

A very reductive (though useful) model for looking at the basic reasons people engage with content is that the piece of content needs to be at least one of four things:

  • Educate
  • Inform
  • Entertain
  • Inspire

Something that not many people may know is that ‘Numa Numa’ is actually older than YouTube. So it was reuploaded to the platform at a very early stage – this could be the reason it was such a huge success. It could be said that the video was one of the first tick the 'entertain' box.

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Going viral without an algorithm

The science behind going viral organically is actually pretty simple. If, on average, one in eight people who see a piece of content share it, and when it is shared the content gets seen by an average of ten people, this video will grow virally until that ratio becomes negative. The reasons the ratio could become negative?

  • Over time, the content may become less relevant, and therefore, less people will share it.
  • The people that it is being exposed to may have already engaged with the content, reducing the likelihood they share it.

Things are about to get nerdy up in here, so get your glasses on. After spending a huge amount of time reporting on social platforms, you start to build an understanding of why content goes viral.

Going viral with an algorithm

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You could apply the non-algorithm based logic to your Facebook timeline, but it would be a little too reductive - you may get similar results - but we might as well give you the full explanation. You can get an understanding of what happens by following this four step process:

  1. Content is posted on social media to a small sample of your audience.
  2. If your content receives a high engagement rate amongst the small sample of your audience, your post will be shown to more of your audience and some of your audience's friends.
  3. If your content receives a high engagement rate amongst the wider sample of your audience, and a high engagement rate amongst their friends, your post will be shown to even more of your audience and more of your audience’s friends and some of your audience’s friends’ friends.
  4. This process continues indefinitely.

This staggered approach to content distribution across timelines is in place to ensure that you only see content that you’ll be interested in. A piece of content goes viral if the engagement rate stays consistently 'high' between each step away from the original content creator’s audience.

You should have a good understanding of how things go viral now, so that knowledge can be a tool for you to apply to your own video strategy. If you want to further your understanding, we’d recommend downloading our eBook Understanding The Reasons People Share Videos on Social Media.

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