It could be a cute video of your pet, a brutal fight in a crowded high school hallway, or an auto-toned simple song about the best day of the week. It could be a blog post decrying Hipster Beards. What exactly makes content go viral? That is a perplexing question that has confounded many a marketing guru. There are, however, reasonable theories that illuminate the reasons for internet contagiousness. Together, these could create a whole organism that invites the coveted virus of web traffic.
The Theory of the Heart
While conjuring an emotional response from users is a crucial element to creating viral content, it isn’t always easy. Some emotions such as anger, though, are easy to produce. One method is to publicly disagree with a recognized opinion, all to drive users to express their rage through comments and share links on their own social networking platforms. A perfect example occurred recently when Kid Rock in a Rolling Stone interview expressed astonishment at Beyoncé’s success and idolization. Her fans, also known as the Beyhive, swarmed the rapper’s social media accounts with full ire. Needless to say, Kid Rock became a high trending topic—although perhaps not as he might have wanted.
An article in Fast Company further explains:
Recent research suggests that emotions hold the secret to viral web content. Articles, posts, or videos that evoke positive emotions have greater viral potential than something that evokes negative feelings, but both do a better job recruiting clicks than neutral content. The finer details tell a similar story: triggering high-arousal emotions, such as anger or humor, is a surer path to click gold than triggering low-arousal ones, such as contentment or sadness.
The Theory of the Mind
This has to do with memory-induced triggers, and is elucidated in the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On—written by Jonah Berger, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of Business. Berger argues that individuals tend to share what’s on their immediate mind, and this dovetails into the science behind word of mouth. During an interview, he explains why the GEICO’s “Hump-Day” camel ad became vastly popular. It’s not really because people relish in the idea of going around yelling “Hump Dayyy!” in their best camel impersonation (although it is a pastime of mine). He explains instead:
It’s one of the most shared ads of last year. One the question is, why. Well, if you look at the data you notice something very interesting. There’s a spike of attention, and then it goes down, and then another spike and it goes down … if you look closer, you realize that the spikes are not random, they’re seven days apart. And you look even closer, you realize that they’re every Wednesday, whereas it’s known as “Hump Day.” So, this ad is equally good or bad every day of the week, but Wednesday provides a ready reminder, what psychologists call a “trigger” to make people think about it and talk about it. When something is top of mind, we’re much more likely to share it. Just like peanut butter reminds us of jelly, Wednesday reminds us of Hump Day, which reminds us to share this ad. That’s one reason why it’s so popular.
The Theory of the Eye
Captivating content will likely not go viral unless it’s in the right place, at the right time, and in the right way.
Our own research reveals:
As any marketer knows, the content isn’t the only key factor. How it’s presented is just as important. Compelling content simply won’t go viral unless it is positioned in the right place, at the right time, and in the right way. Location on webpages, attachments, and readability are all important factors. Studies show that users only actually read about 20% of a typical webpage, and of that 20%, very little is actually absorbed. This means that viral content must be friendly to skimmers. Viral content must be presented in a way that highlights verbal and visual hooks which will catch the viewer’s interest and convince them to stop and pay attention.
According to white paper by Cisco, by 2017 video will account for 69% of all consumer internet traffic. Video-on-demand traffic alone will have almost tripled. This clearly means that visual will be king of content, so pleasing the eye will be the queen-wearing-the-pants.
The Theory of the Body
Many are familiar with list-articles on BuzzFeed and other similar sites. They are vastly popular, often producing infectious content.
The appeal of list-articles stories is from the value of practicality, belonging, and, in a way, civic duty. In an interview with The New Yorker, Berger said list-articles are successful because they “allow people to feel like there’s a nice packet of useful information that they can share with others.” By sharing a piece of “useful information,” individuals may appear to others as smart and helpful, as well as feel part of a larger, beneficial organism.
The University of Pennsylvania conducted a study on what makes content go viral. It found that informative, educational, practical, interesting, and surprising articles are more likely to make the most e-mailed list of the New York Times.
The study further states:
People might be more likely to share positive stories on overcast days, for example, to make others feel happier. Other cues in the environment might also shape social transmission by making certain topics more accessible. When the World Series is going on, for example, people may be more likely to share a sports story because that topic has been primed.
Finally, the study states that leadership or expert articles have a smaller chance of becoming viral, contrary to the tenets of buzz marketing. This points to the conclusion that people want to belong and at the same time want to share information that benefits the whole of the community.
Following these four theories will not guarantee that your next blog post will go viral. If that were the case, many would need to upgrade their internet bandwidth to Kid Rock levels. While we cannot infer too much from these theories and studies, it does highlight an opportunity for further research (and opportunity). In the meantime, keep sharing those videos and pictures of cute cats. One doesn’t need science or studies to know the internet loves cats.
Image Credit Tom Fishburne