The Science Behind Going Viral

This year’s Super Bowl garnered over 100 million viewers. This uniquely American experience is not only an opportunity to connect over the big game, but also the creative commercials aired during it. Viewers look forward to discussing these ads in the days to come, and some of these ads will reach millions of hits on YouTube. Those lucky few are considered viral.

Six months after the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge hit its peak, the campaign to this day continues to draw donations. The campaign is considered one of the most viral in recent history.

After organizations and communication strategists have looked into unlocking the secrets of virality for years, AdAge predicts that in 2015, we might finally reach a clear understanding of the science behind virality.

What Defines Going Viral?

Scholars Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley define virality as “a social information flow process where many people simultaneously forward a specific information item, over a short period of time, within their social networks, and where the message spreads beyond their own (social) networks to different, often distant networks, resulting in a sharp acceleration in the number of people who are exposed to the message.”

Virality is not simply popularity. Often times the concept adds a dimension of speed and flow to what we consider popular content. Other times, certain viral information is not well liked, but is part of a larger conversation – as the case with social movements manifested through viral social media campaigns.

Nahon and Hemsley explain, “Content that we create can remain stubbornly obscure even when we apply our best efforts to promote it. It can also grow and spread with an apparent life and momentum of its own, destroying some people’s lives and bringing fame and fortune to others, sometimes in a matter of days.”

The Science Behind Virality

In January 2015, AdAge reported that in 2015, marketers will finally “truly understand sharing — why, what, how much, to whom and, critically, the role of brands in that shared experience.”

The phenomenon of viral online content within our culture – in video form or otherwise – is yet another manifestation of today’s digitally empowered audience. Through interlinked networks on social media, the public now has a voice in deciding which stories and content should be most visible, a role previously played by major news institutions.

Perhaps the audience-focused nature is why many have reasoned in the past – and continue to believe – that virality can’t be orchestrated. YouTube’s Kevin Alloca, for example, does not believe that virality is a science, but rather “a simple formula: free web platforms, cheap devices, increasingly better bandwidth and the ability to openly distribute content for the first time on a large scale.”

Alloca’s perspective argues that whether something goes viral lies in the hands of the public. The idea is: if the audience likes it, they will share it – marketers cannot entice them do so.

Yet, sponsored content and campaigns have been successfully planned for virality by both nonprofits and well-known brands. And, academics have given them reason to think such planning could be successful. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania uncovered what they believe makes a reader share certain stories over email. Frequently shared stories:

  1. have a positive theme;

  2. are long articles on intellectually challenging topics;

  3. consist of something awe-inspiring (“emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self”);

  4. create an emotional communion (“I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe. If you read the article and feel the same emotion, it will bring us closer together”);

  5. provide social currency (“I get to show off how well informed I am”).

Moreover, research published in The New Yorker, from the National Science Foundation, BBCthe Guardian, and Business Insider all reflect some arrangement of these same five attributes. Marketers, communication experts, and academic researchers agree: viral content is about the content itself. Something goes viral when the public sees in it an emotional, personal connection that compels them to share with those in their social networks.

Virality points back to a key in brand communication—creating content that connects and resonates with the public. The public can further a cause they deem worthy by lending it their credibility, and sharing it with their networks. To know the secret of virality, if such a secret exists, would be marketing gold to brands seeking the public’s engagement. I look forward to seeing if this prediction for 2015 holds true.

by Jack Martin

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