Ever heard of Rebecca Black’s “Friday“? Ever been pressured to dump a bucket of ice on your head in the name of a good cause? Ever found yourself saying “DAMN” to your good friend Daniel? Of course you have. But why?
We all know “viral” when we see it. From Chewbacca Mom to Call Me Maybe, the Harlem Shake to the Mannequin Challenge… when something or someone goes viral, we all know about it, and we all want to get in on the fun. Even the former First Lady.
These videos and campaigns are great — little known artists, charities and movements are suddenly thrust into the spotlight, begging everyone to know about them and participate in them. But going “viral” isn’t just optimal for media consumers looking for a good laugh — content producers benefit immensely from going viral, too, and they’ll do just about all they can to make it happen.
The Anatomy of a Viral Sensation
So what exactly makes one thing a viral sensation and another thing a total flop? It turns out that a big portion of it simply has to do with luck. On the internet, if one object happens to get slightly more popular than another at just the right moment, it’s ability to become increasingly popular increases exponentially. Even tiny, random fluctuations can suddenly blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors. This is what we call “cumulative advantage,” and it’s a large part of why artists like Justin Timberlake and Carly Rae Jespen are so well-known and successful today.
Another key factor that may help your content skyrocket could have to do with what’s known as the “Long Tail.” The internet is a world of abundance: all tastes and varieties for entertainment and engagement — no matter how obscure — can be satisfied somewhere online. So those people who really enjoy button collecting still can find online content that interests them as many as 846 million people found “Charlie Bit My Finger” interesting.
This means that even interests that can seem wildly boring to some, like crocheting and video game cheats, can still build a cult following somewhere in the depths of the worldwide web. As Wired’s Chris Anderson puts it, “suddenly, popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability.” This is why the internet is a hotbed for viral success: unlike other mediums, nearly everyone has access to it, and therefore nearly anyone can find content that will be popular with them or the masses.
How to “Go Viral”
So, how can we optimize our content to make it well-suited for “virality”? Josh Elman of Greylock Partners says there are a few types of virality, and the closer we align our content to fit these types of virality, the more likely it is to become wildly popular.
Here are some strategies you can use to optimize different types of virality:
- Optimize for Word of Mouth Virality — Produce a product or content that is easy to spell and remember. Make it easy to describe, too. Snapchat, for example, is to-the-point and memorable. It’s all in the name: snap your friends pictures and chat with them.
- Optimize for Incentivized Word of Mouth Virality — Make it easy for people to dive in and use your product or content. And throw in a bonus for people who jump into business with you! Think of brands like Erin Condren, which offers a $10 gift card when you connect your friends with their products.
- Optimize for Demonstration — Get people to see something and say, “how did you do that?!” Apps like Musical.ly skyrocketed when it made a cool DIY acapella app that is easily shareable across Instagram. When your followers see the cool videos you make, they want to make them, too!
- Optimize for Infectious Virality — Make it so users need to share your product or content with each other. Think about Facebook: users are organically incentivized to encourage their friends to make an account on Facebook so they have an audience for their posts. This can be risky, though: you’ll need a high rate of initial buy-in for this strategy to be successful.
- Optimize for Outbreak Virality — Produce a product or content that spreads simply because it’s an awesome and fun to share. PokemonGo, for example, was strategically launched in the summer, when friends could head outside in groups to explore their neighborhoods in a whole new way. The product went beyond an app — it was an activity, an experience.
When all is said and done, the universe is not orderly. In fact, some say the likelihood of your content or product “going viral” boils down to randomness and luck. But this doesn’t mean you should leave your chances of success up to chance! Be sure to optimize your content to be memorable, shareable, and fun, and there’s no doubt you’re on your way to viral victory.
(Feature image credit: Kimberly Wong)