What exactly goes viral? Can we predict it? Do we have a clear cut formula we can deploy and which can control how popular the content will be? Is it about creating videos and images that are emotional, or of inserting snazzy infographics? Or in the case of text, format in lists rather than paragraphs, use perfect taglines, add patriotic sentiment, touch on culturally accepted ideas or use good old-fashioned humour?
The answer is not that simple. Making content viral is a very subjective art, particularly because it requires a very subjective component - to engage and involve the individual user. This is a topic many professionals are researching. Viral content is essentially content that gains recognition through proliferation of shares and exposure on search engines, websites and social media networks. Virality, as renowned influencer Neil Patel studies it, is linked to some a number of factors:
1. Positive Content is Popular Content
According to Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, in their article 'What Makes Online Content Go Viral', people are more likely to share positive than negative content because it shows them in a better light and spreads more positivity in the process. This is no surprise, given that most users admit to spending time online engaging in content that prompts positive emotion. It also explains why animal memes (particularly those showcasing Grumpy Cat) circulate so easily. Humour has universal appeal.
2. Intense High Arousal is Key
Another finding from Berger and Milkman’s research on the virality of the articles appearing in the New York Times is that content that arouses intense emotions, such as anger, shock, surprise, fear or anxiety, is shared. These are emotions that prompt viewers to share the content. Content that arouses low stimulating emotions, such as sadness, is unlikely to circulate. If you want to make your content go viral, it needs to buzz your viewer into action.
3. Content Needs to be Avant-Garde
According to Will Nathan from BuzzFeed, a viral ‘phenotype’ exists. It consists of content that continually surprises and enlightens viewers. Internet users are likely to share content that they could not imagine thinking of themselves; new, sensational creative ideas which amaze and astound. Content creators need to be wizards at creating images, words music and videos that are radical. Essentially content that goes viral is content that really proves that it hasn’t all been said and done…not yet.
4. Content Should Trend
According to Brian Dean on Backlinko (a marketing blog offering professional advice), content is more likely to be shared when it revolves around a topic that is trending Following the spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, the topic ‘Work from Home’ was trending and multiple memes and videos on the subject went viral.
5. Content Should Have a Purpose
According to Neil Patel, sharable content is content that is ‘useful’ to the viewer. It can be instructive, practical and help solve problems, such as cooking, educational research, website creation and other endeavours. Viral content is content that users can use in their daily lives to perform tasks they need to do. The more useful it is, the more likely it is to be shared. Content tailored at users can help create brand recognition and snowball the level of shares and exposure for businesses and content creators alike.
Sana Ahmad Safdar is a freelance writer.