Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jul-Aug 2016

What makes content go viral

Three tried-and-tested techniques to make your content multiply like a rabbit on little blue pills.
Photo: Online.
Photo: Online.

It is almost impossible to walk into a meeting and not have a client at least suggest creating a viral video for his campaign. In fact, the desire to create viral content has spread like a viral infection itself. There is good reason for this excitement – imagine acquiring an absurd amount of reach at a hundredth of the total budget you would usually have to spend in order to achieve that level of reach.

Yet, success in viral content is almost as elusive as finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow; in fact, 90% of the attempts made to go viral end in failure. Even more upsetting for clients, agencies and production houses, apart from seeing their combined strategy and budgets fizzle out, is to then watch a starlet grab nothing more than a cell phone and go viral at the drop of a... well let’s not go there.

So what exactly defines viral? I am not surprised that many people do not have a definition given that even the big names in the global industry don’t seem to be able to agree on a single definition and scope. In fact, there are four areas where success means you might have created viral content.

There is a huge debate on whether it is one million or five million views that can be considered as being viral. In my opinion, the market decides what reach is viral. Five million views might constitute going viral in the US, but given the size of audiences in Pakistan, 150,000 views mean that we have achieved the status of viral by local standards.

Earned media
This is something many people miss out on. Viral content is created to earn free mileage. I would not consider a video as having gone viral at a million views, if those views are achieved through paid or owned media. In my opinion, one can only consider something truly viral if the earned media heavily outmatches the first two. If I have to give it a ratio, I would suggest 1:100, minimum. So, if you have paid for a reach of 10,000 and you get 1,000,000 organically, then it is time to celebrate.

Take the average Facebook post from any brand. Now go to Taher Shah’s page and look at the engagement there. Leave aside whether it’s good or bad; the reason why anything Shah does goes viral is because people like to talk about and share it, whether they like it or not. It doesn’t matter from where the engagement is coming – people comment on his post, Twitterati tweet about him in horror and a BBC journalist writes an article about his latest video. Every bit of engagement is making his content go viral.

Copycats and parodies
My English teacher in high school used to say that imitation is the best form of flattery. A phenomenon that precedes content going viral is the slew of copycat content and parodies that follow the original ‘seed’ content. It is a clear sign that something is about to spread like wildfire.

Now let’s examine what you can do to make your content multiply like a rabbit on little blue pills. In my opinion and in order of importance, here is a list of the things you could do to increase the probability of success.

1) Emotion. The single most important thing content should evoke is emotion. This is the reason why Shan Foods were successful when they uploaded their Ramazan TVC on digital media. The thing about Pakistani brands is that they are limited in imagination when it comes to the kind of emotion they want to evoke. It always has to be a lovey dovey feeling somehow tied around mamta (motherliness). However, there are many other emotional triggers that can be as powerful. In fact, there are seven such emotions, known as High-Arousal Emotions.

Awe: If you can leave someone speechless by awing them with something remarkable, they will feel the immediate need to share the content. The more fantastic the story, the greater the likelihood of it being shared. Remember Felix Baumgartner’s space jump? It received eight million views on YouTube (

Surprise: Anything you show that is against people’s expectations will work. One of the best examples was when Cristiano Ronaldo dressed up as an old man to play football on the street and ended up revealing himself, surprising people. Watch it here:

Anger: A no-brainer. By making people angry, you can force them to react immediately. Think about it. The reason why those Trump videos are shared is not because there are that many Trump supporters out there, it is because they enrage people enough to react.

Joy: Anything that makes you happy evokes an urgent need to share that happiness with people close to you. This could be anything that lifts your spirits – a video where a cat is rescued from a flood or something funny like a stand-up comedy clip. Type ‘funny’ on YouTube and you can gauge the number of views. It’s a shame that only a handful of brands understand the power of humour in marketing. It is an amazing tool to cut clutter.

If all else fails, there is always the cat! — Illustration by Creative Unit.
If all else fails, there is always the cat! — Illustration by Creative Unit.

Lust: Use your imagination...

Fear: The most primeval part of our brain is the reason why we have survived as a species. It is wired around detecting and learning from fear, teaching us avoidance and prevention. Ever since humans have evolved, they have developed an urge to share learnings immediately, so that we are all better prepared next time. Dissect all the shared videos about the Middle East and you will find that they basically revolve around fear of brutality and chaos.

Anxiety: Anxiety is unease caused by the uncertainty of an outcome. This is the reason why the 2004 Thai tsunami videos were widely shared. Look at the quality of this video, yet it received 29 million views ( tsunami234). The driving force is anxiety. You may question anxiety’s relevance to a brand, yet I am willing to bet that anxiety has been used since the advent of advertising. A basic example is a whitening cream ad which shows a girl anxious because she has dark skin. It is a crude example, but it clearly shows anxiety used as a trigger.

2) Video. Apart from emotion, video content is on the rise. This is not because it is more interesting to look at, but because we are wired to respond better and quicker to images rather than text. For example, Facebook posts with written content and links have an average interaction of four percent, while those with even a simple still image can garner up to 87%. Adding an image to your tweet will boost retweets by 35%.

3) Publishing time. All social platforms have peak hours of activity. Furthermore, every type of audience on every platform has a different peak activity time. So seed your content (publish it) so as to gain maximum initial viewership. Hence, depending on whether you want to engage businessmen or teenagers, you will have to determine when is the right time to publish a post.

It may appear to you that most feeds are timeline-based and older stuff is moved down to leave space for the current posts, but it is important to understand that people usually browse the top items on their wall only. The publishing strategy should follow suit.

The key takeaway is give people content that engages and moves them to share it. If you fail after multiple attempts, then there are always cats... yes, cats. Put a cute cat in any video and your content has greater probability of going viral. This phenomenon is a total mystery to me, but it never fails.

Do you have anything to share? If you have insights that can make content go viral other than those discussed above I would love to hear from you.

Syed Amir Haleem is CEO, KueBall Digital.