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Going Viral: A Data-Driven Approach

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In July 2012, a then unknown (at least, here in the U.S.) Korean pop artist Park Jae-sang (more commonly known as Psy) released the music video for Gangnam Style. You’ve probably heard of it.

The video took just 48 hours to make and contained no special effects – or, in fact, anything that unusual (cheesy pop videos aren’t exactly a new phenomenon).

And yet, on the day of its release, the video was viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube. Within two months, it surpassed 5 million views, and in December 2013, the video exceeded 2 billion views, breaking YouTube’s viewer counter.


That’s pretty impressive stuff.

On February 26th this year, a picture of a dress “broke the internet,” drawing more visitors simultaneously to Buzzfeed than ever before.

By 9pm that day, #thedress was the “top trending topic on Twitter.”

And it wasn’t long before celebrities including Taylor Swift, Mindy Kaling, Julianne Moore, and Jimmy Fallon were jumping on the bandwagon to have their say, too.


Let’s just reflect on how the “dress that broke the internet” was little more than that: a picture of a dress.

On the 2nd of February, 2013, a 30-second video of four costumed men dancing in time to the song “Harlem Shake” was added to YouTube. Today, this video is approaching 54 million views – but that’s not the true story of its success.

By February 10th, 4,000 original versions of the Harlem Shake video were uploaded to YouTube, meaning that one was created every 21.6 seconds. By February 15th, approximately 40,000Harlem Shake videos had been uploaded, totaling 175 million views.

Within a single month, the world spent a combined 2,782 yearswatching various interpretations of the Harlem Shake.

So what (if anything) do Gangnam Style, #TheDress, and the Harlem Shake have in common? How can you replicate this success and get a low-budget music video to exceed 2 billion views, a picture of a dress to get half the world talking, or a 30-second home video to inspire 40,000 remakes?

Let’s begin by looking at….

What “viral content” is

While creating content that “breaks the internet” would be the ultimate achievement for any marketer, we don’t have to reach that level of success for our content to be considered “viral.”

In its simplest form, viral content is a piece of digital media that quickly gains significant traction and visibility online. It can be compared, rather accurately, to what happens when a virus goes viral: “When a virus “goes viral,” it spreads from the original source to another, and another and another — capable of being dispersed far from the original source.

So, to consider our content viral, it should have attained great success in a minimal amount of time. Lots of people will be sharing and talking about the content, and it will be gaining tractionwithout any push from the inside (except, perhaps, to help the content get off the ground initially).

Viral success doesn’t have to mean breaking the 2 billion views mark – it just means breaking the “hell of a lot of views” mark.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t learn from content that hypothetically “broke the internet,” and the stats suggest we need to….

Recently, the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs joined forces to determine the biggest challenges faced by B2B marketers when creating content, and the results were telling…

54% of participants stated that producing engaging content is a challenge, while 50% said the same about producing contentconsistently.

More worryingly (though perhaps, not surprisingly), only 8% of B2B marketers awarded full marks to the effectiveness of their organization’s content marketing, while 2% stated it was “not at all effective.”


If you feel you’ve got a lot to learn when it comes to creating content that goes viral, you’re certainly not alone.

What makes us share content?

Update: Sagi over at Hacking UI created a workflow on Google Spreadsheet that you can incorporate into your ideation process. Check it out here

The first step to creating viral content is getting people to share it – visits and views are nice, and are important if you have brand visibility and conversions as goals (which you absolutely should). But unless those visitors go on to share your content, you’re no closer to going viral.

Here a few of the biggest reasons people share content…

  1. It’s remarkable

“Ordinary” content has little chance of gaining real traction in today’s noisy market. People want to read about things that surprise and impress them.

This is why an article about Nasa’s trip to Pluto was picked as the headline story for a recent front page of the New York Times:


And, on another day, why a story about a dinosaur capsule took prime position:


Just to clarify – it’s because dinosaurs and space travel are awesome, and pretty remarkable.

It’s worth noting that this is also how the media, in general, operates, and how something becomes worthy of being called “news” rather than simply “information.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean completely unremarkable and, subsequently, unintentionally entertaining stories don’t occasionally make their way into the headlines…


  1. It makes people feel like they’re part of something special

Buzzfeed landed on something big the day they started publishing articles targeting niche audience. People like to feel like they’re part of something “different” and “exclusive” – it’s about standing out from the majority, while identifying with a close group of people that have similar ideas, views, or experiences.

At first glance, it may seem like they’re going against the grain by excluding 99.9% of the population with their content, but content that’s irrelevant to the 99.9% becomes even more relevant to that remaining 0.1%.

Take a look at Buzzfeed’s article, “40 Signs You Went to Berkeley.” It’s a pretty niche topic, and formed almost entirely of references only Berkeley alumni will understand (GSI, anyone?)

Yet, it’s clocked up more than 30,000 interactions on Facebook today:


So how does something so niche get shared so widely? All it takes is for one person who went to Berkeley to share this with his or her friends, some of whom almost definitely also went to Berkeley.

Those who read it are likely to feel a mix of nostalgia, excitement, and comradery and, consequently, feel the need to share the content themselves. Before long, it’s spread like wildfire and gone viral.

  1. It’s useful or adds value

It makes sense that content that helps people out and offers genuine value will receive a positive response.

Just glance at the cover of any magazine and you’ll see that a big chunk of the content is geared around offering information and advice designed to improve readers’ lives.

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  1. Other people are sharing it

In general, people like to follow the crowd, and being “different” is frowned upon. We tend to fear the things we don’t understand, and these fears can transcend all walks of life – including how we behave online.

Before we share something (publicly, at least), it’s not unusual for us to seek reassurance that sharing this “something” is okay. That reassurance comes from seeing that other people are sharing it as well.

It’s the “social proof” effect; “the concept that people will conform to the actions of others under the assumption that those actions are reflective of the correct behavior.”

It’s worth noting that research carried out by Buzzsumo found this effect to be magnified when influencers were sharing the content:


Get the ball rolling for your own content by:

  • Making your content as easy as possible to share (more on this below)
  • Using appropriate, effective CTAs
  • Creating a detailed outreach plan that includes outreach to key influencers (my latest tool, io, can help streamline this process)
  • If necessary, using paid promotion to get early eyeballs on your content
  1. It’s easy to share

If you don’t make it easy for people to share your content, that’s a huge barrier to its potential virality. Who wants to go the length of copying and pasting content and URLs when they’re used to sharing content with the click of a button?

If you haven’t already done so, get some sharing buttons installed on your site. Floating sharing buttons are usually a good optionbecause they move as the user moves, and consequently, are always visible on the page.

If you’ve spotted evidence against the use of sharing buttons – don’t panic. Research like this analyzes the use of sharing buttons on product pages, where they understandably act as a distraction.

Conversely, there’s much more evidence that shows that, on the right page, these buttons do work. Research from iA revealed that on pages that include a “Tweet” button, an average of 20% of the tweets that page recieved originated from the button, while some sites received up to 40% of their tweets from that same button.


And really, what have you got to lose?

  1. It’s funny

People like to laugh. They also like to make others laugh. For this reason, if you think something is funny, and other people think it’s funny too, it’s likely to get shared.

The proof, however, is in the pudding.

This infographic from Bing and Mashable features the 10 most searched for viral content pieces of 2013. Of those 10, at least 9 sit firmly in the “funny” category.

Enough said.

But here’s the clincher. One of the biggest reasons people choose to share content is…

  1. Because it makes them look a certain way

Yep, although there are many, many contributing factors to whether someone will or won’t share a piece of content, it often all comes down to how sharing that content will make them look to their friends and followers.

If you had, for example, very controversial beliefs that you knew few people agreed with, you’d be unlikely to share content touting these beliefs for fear of the response you’d get from your peers.

Similarly, if you see something that you think will make you look intelligent, make your friends laugh, or is likely to spark an interesting conversation, then because it will help portray you in a positive light, you’re much more likely to share it.

This concluding factor in our decision to share is nothing new. Long before the internet, we still decided whether to speak up or shut up based on how what we said would be perceived.

Back in 1966, Ernest Dichter proved this point when he studied the effect of word of mouth and people’s propensity to talk about brands.

Ernest found that the second biggest reason consumers would spread the word about brands was self-involvement – that is, 24% of consumers would talk to others about brands because “sharing knowledge or opinions is a way to gain attention, show connoisseurship, feel like a pioneer, have inside information, seek confirmation of a person’s own judgement, or assert superiority.”

So what does this mean for marketers? Try tapping into a niche idea or belief. This all comes back to “reason people share #2” – by reinforcing the beliefs or experiences of a niche audience, your content will resonate with them naturally and increase the likelihood that they’ll share.

So, what actually makes content go viral?

Getting people to share content is one thing. But what takes that content from “A few people liked this and shared it” to “Oh my god, this has actually gone viral?”

Let’s start by looking at what all of the “reasons people share” above have in common: they inspire emotion in their audience. That might be happiness, empathy, anger, envy, or any other positive or negative emotion. Whatever it is – it makes people feel something.

Some clever folks over at Scientific American explored this phenomenon by performing an analysis of the New York Times’ homepage content: they examined which types of stories were most widely shared.

Predictably, they discovered that “while content may be shared for many reasons, overall, content that elicits an emotional reaction tends to be more widely shared.”

However, it’s not quite that simple. They went on to say “in addition, stories stimulating positive emotions are more widely shared than those eliciting negative feelings, and content that produces greater emotional arousal (making your heart race) is more likely to go viral.”

Additionally, of content that evokes a negative emotion, “anger-inducing content is more likely to be shared than sadness-inducing content.”

Buzzsumo performed similar research, in which they looked at the top 10,000 most shared articles on the web and mapped each article to an emotion.

The results followed a similar, predictable pattern:


So what can we learn from this? For your best shot at going viral, create content that evokes positive emotions. That said, evoking negative emotion is still far preferable to evoking no emotion at all.

Different audiences respond differently to different types of content

Earlier this year Buzzsumo reviewed every article that Buzzfeed and The Guardian published between the 1st and the 10th of April.

In that time, “BuzzFeed published 2,420 articles which received an average of 5,263 shares each. By contrast The Guardian published6,717 pieces of content which received an average of 485 shares.”

Let’s set aside the fact that The Guardian articles, on average, received far fewer shares than Buzzfeed’s content – Buzzfeed is built on creating content that encourages sharing, while The Guardian is built on creating content that informs. The very nature of the publications and their audience means that Buzzfeed will (generally) drive more shares than The Guardian.

What’s telling here, though, is how vastly the type of content that’s shared by each publication’s audience differs.

Buzzfeed’s most shared post type is the list post, yet lists were the second least shared posts by The Guardian’s audience.

Interestingly, The Guardian’s most shared post type were “Why” posts – Buzzfeed’s second least shared post type.


This demonstrates that, if we want to create content that has the best odds of going viral, we have to establish what type of content will resonate best with our particular demographic and audience.

Don’t assume that just because sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy have enjoyed viral success, that the same format will automatically translate to success with your audience.

It just isn’t that simple – to create content that your audience will respond to, you have to take the time to find out what sort of content they consume, enjoy, and share.

Accept that not everything will go viral

Going viral is rarely something that happens by chance, although there’s always an element of luck involved. Put simply: achieving virality is tough, and very little content will ever manage it.

Upworthy is often perceived as being a routine creator of viral content, and yet 56% of their posts don’t exceed 10,000 views, while only 5 posts – that’s 0.3% of their content – have ever exceeded the 1,000,000 view mark.


While we may be able to apply research and data to our content strategy and increase our odds of striking it big, creating viral content is as much an art as a science. It’s never possible to predict, with 100% accuracy, the response our content will receive.

Accept that it’s okay not to achieve virality with everything you create, and you may find that your next viral idea comes to you a little easier.

Let’s talk a bit more about Gangnam Style…

As I mentioned earlier, the odds of ever achieving Gangnam-level virality are slim, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from what it achieved.

Let’s start by clarifying something: its success was no accident. It’s unlikely anyone predicted how successful it would be, but it wascarefully planned for.

Psy’s (Gangnam Style’s star man) record label, YG Entertainment, had been building bridges with the American music industry long before the iconic video was released.

On top of that, they’d been organically growing their YouTube audience, so that by the time of release, they already had around 2.5 million followers.

The video itself featured a handful of well-loved South Korean celebrities, in order to help secure its success on its home ground.

The video was also was packed with eye-catching colors, featured a silly dance move that was easy to replicate, and – most importantly of all – the song was seriously catchy.

The video launch was preceded by tweets from @allKpop – a huge celebrity and gossip site with 2.28 million followers.

This was followed by worldwide media coverage and tweets from celebrities, including Katy Perry and Josh Groban.

Its fate was sealed.

While few of us are lucky enough to have a budget to match YG Entertainment’s, what this shows is that, although luck helps, achieving virality (usually) entails a hell of a lot of planning and marketing.

Don’t release content and expect it to spread on its own. You need to put the work in to get your content in front of the right people – people with the clout and connections to start the ball rolling.

And that dress

#thedress was one of Buzzfeed’s (and consequently, the internet’s) most viral pieces of content – ever.


And just to reiterate – it’s a picture of a dress.

Nothing about a picture of a dress is inherently interesting or exciting (that said, I’m a man, and I don’t buy dresses – I apologize to anyone who feels differently about them.)

There’s something about this picture of a dress, however, that I think is very interesting: the fact that it managed to get so many people talking.

I believe that the secret to this image’s viral success lies in how the image was presented to us: as a question, that we can all instantly have an opinion on.

An opinion that was held so strongly – because what we could seemust be right – that we had to argue our point of view.


So what can we learn from #thedress?

Create content that divides opinions because controversy rarely fails to get people talking.

Key takeaways

At the risk of repeating myself, there’s no exact science to creating viral content. If there was, everything would be able to go viral. Instead, most content is destined for relative – or total – obscurity.

That said, by looking at what content has gone viral and why, and applying these findings to the content we create, we can greatly improve our odds of becoming the next “dress” or “Gangnam Style.

  1. Understand what “viral” is: viral content is content that gains a lot of traction and visibility quickly and (mostly) organically. You do not have to “break the internet” to consider your content viral.
  1. Accept that not all content will go viral. Creating content may be your job, but only a small portion of it is likely to ever go viral (and what does may surprise you).
  1. Before you worry about whether your content will go viral, worry about how to get people to share it. Shareworthy content may be one or all of these things:
  • Remarkable
  • Useful
  • Niche
  • Funny

And don’t forget that people are more likely to share your content if its:

  • Easy to share
  • They see others sharing it
  • It makes them look good
  1. More than anything, content that goes viral evokes emotion. The stats show that people respond best to content that evokes positive emotion, but any emotion is ultimately better than none.
  1. Know your audience. Not every audience will respond to the same type of content. Study your visitors, find out which publications they follow and what type of content they already share, and use this information to drive your own content strategy.
  1. Take inspiration from other viral content – even content that’s unrelated to your niche and your audience can teach you a lot about how to get your content from views, to shares, to virality.

Do you have any other insights into what makes content go viral? Have you tested anything else that you’ve found either worked or didn’t work? Let me know by sharing your experiences in the comments below:

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  • Carl Sabounjian

    Nice Post!