Going Viral: Industry Experts Weigh In on What Sparks Virality

Virality. It’s something every journalist, advertiser and public relations professional craves, but actual attainment is elusive. What makes a piece viral? To pinpoint this, Communications@Syracuse asked 16 thought leaders to do two things:

  1. Identify a piece of content that went viral and
  2. briefly comment with their opinion of why that piece went viral.

Participants submitted everything from the ALS ice bucket challenge and other videos to articles and even individual tweets. Their answers as to why each piece went viral highlighted a number of different factors, including prosociality, metadata, celebrity influence and, yes, even the ubiquitous listicles. 

Check them out below:

      1. Jonah Berger, author, Contagious: Why Things Catch On

        VIDEO: ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

      2. Megan Berry, VP of product, RebelMouse

        ARTICLE: Perfectly Timed Photos That Make Dogs Look Like Giants 

      3. Nick Cicero, CEO and founder, Delmondo

        VIDEO: Shia LaBeouf's “Do It”

      4. Georgy Cohen, associate creative director of content strategy, OHO Interactive

        ARTICLE: The Really Big One

      5. Scott DeLong, founder and CSO, ViralNova

        ARTICLE: A Man Takes a Single Rake to the Beach. And When You Zoom Out and See It... Mind BLOWN.

      6. Sarah Fudin, director of corporate brand marketing, 2U

        PROJECT: 100 Days Without Fear

      7. Brendan Gahan, founder, EpicSignal

        VIDEO: Ape With AK-47

      8. Matthew Gratt, Buzzstream

        QUIZ: New York Times Dialect Quiz

      9. Alfred Hermida, author, Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters

        VIDEO: What Does the Fox Say?

      10. Kelsey Libert, partner, VP of marketing, Fractl

        ARTICLE: Perceptions of Perfection Across Borders

      11. Rebecca Lindegren, director of content marketing, TrackMaven

        ADVERTISEMENT: #LikeAGirl campaign

      12. Erica Moss, community manager, Bitly

        ARTICLE: A Couple Did A Newborn Photo Shoot With Their Dog To Stop People Asking About Babies

      13. Shaul Olmert, co-founder and CEO, Playbuzz

        ARTICLE:  Which Business Leader Would Make the Best U.S. President?

      14. Sam Parr, The Hustle

        ARTICLE: The Real Erlich Bachman of Silicon Valley

      15. Niketa Patel, partnerships manager of news, Twitter

        TWEET: #LoveWins

      16. Elana Zak, social media editor, StatNews

        ARTICLE: “I’m No Longer Afraid”

 


 

Jonah Berger, author, Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Content: ALS ice bucket challenge

Why do you think this piece went viral?

As I talk about in Contagious: Why Things Catch On, there are six key drivers of why things go viral. And the ice bucket challenge hit a number of them. First, because it was prosocial, it made people look good to share. Second, it evoked lots of high arousal emotion, like surprise. And third, it was extremely public. Unlike a chain letter, where you can turn it down without anyone knowing, here, someone publicly challenged you to take action. And because of that, people could see others taking part.

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Megan Berry, VP of product, RebelMouse

Content: Perfectly Timed Photos That Make Dogs Look Like Giants

Why do you think this piece went viral?

[This piece] got almost 2 million views in the first five days, many of them in the first 24 hours.

This article is incredibly visual. Every one of the photos in the article is really wonderful and calls out the viewer quickly—perfect for visual platforms like Twitter and Facebook. They defy expectations—we have a certain sense of what we expect from photos of dogs (oh look, more cute puppies), and this breaks out of that mold. It’s a list post. Listicles rule the social world for a reason: They are incredibly compelling, easy to view and very visual.

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Nick Cicero, CEO and founder, Delmondo

Content: Shia LaBeouf's “Do It”

Background: Shia LaBeouf stands in front of a green screen and screams motivational phrases while flexing like a WWE wrestler. The video is a segment from a collaborative video project between LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Luke Turner and Central Saint Martins BA Fine Art 2015 students, originally uploaded to Vimeo by Rönkkö/Turner with the title “#INTRODUCTIONS.”

Why do you think this piece went viral?

This piece was primed for virality; It took a trending name on the Internet, Shia LaBeouf, fresh off a year of zaniness, and combined it with the magic of green screen turning it into remixable gold for creators. After the YouTube video took off on Reddit, social influencers and just random people on the Internet began remixing the clip into Ted Talks, music videos, scenes from Star Wars and Vines. Aside from the original video, these community-generated videos have gained hundreds of millions of plays across various social channels. You have to say he really knows how to create a ton of buzz about his personal brand (positive and negative).

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Georgy Cohen, associate creative director of content strategy, OHO Interactive

Content: The Really Big One | An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when. | By Kathryn Schulz | The New Yorker, July 20, 2015

Why do you think this piece went viral?

This may seem to be an odd selection, since it’s not a Jimmy Fallon clip or a Gregory Brothers video, but I have seen this article shared via Facebook and Twitter numerous times over the past week or so, by a wide range of connections. I think it went viral because it’s a compelling, well-researched, well-written and relevant piece.

But I also think it went viral because it had great metadata. The on-page headline “The Really Big One” likely works in a print context supported by layout, typography, imagery and a subhead. But in the headline-centric world of social media, it’s not enough. The online article’s title meta tag, as well as its Facebook Open Graph and Twitter Card title tags, reads “The Earthquake That Will Devastate Seattle,” which is much more inherently terrifying and informative, thus prompting a landslide of social sharing. Similarly, the Twitter- and Facebook-specific meta description of the article is, “When the giant fault line along the Pacific Northwest ruptures, it could be our worst natural disaster ever,” which again differs markedly from the on-page version in the article. Moral of the story? Metadata matters.

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Scott DeLong, founder and CSO, ViralNova

Content: A Man Takes a Single Rake to the Beach. And When You Zoom Out and See It... Mind BLOWN.

Why do you think this piece went viral?

This piece went viral for a couple of reasons:

  1. This piece of content features artwork that most people have never seen before. On top of that, there’s something intriguing—almost magical—about spending hours on a piece of work fully knowing that when the tide comes in, it’ll be washed away forever. It’s such a unique and beautiful art that it’s appealing to virtually anyone, not just devout admirers of art. There’s a psychological draw to what Andres Amador does.
  2. The presentation we gave it (that is, thumbnail and headline) is intriguing enough that someone who sees the preview will surely click to read the whole article. While unorthodox compared to traditional media headlines, the one we used was personal and interesting. We often write headlines in the same way you’re at a party and want to tell your friend to check something out. “A Man Takes a Single Rake to the Beach. And When You Zoom Out and See It... Mind BLOWN.”

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Sarah Fudin, director of corporate brand marketing, 2U

Content: 100 Days Without Fear/YouTube Channel

Why do you think this piece went viral?

Virality, in my opinion, comes from content striking a chord with basic human emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise. The more emotions a piece taps into, the more relatable it will be, and the more likely it will be to be shared. The 100 Days Without Fear project touches all six basic human emotions with fear being at the core. Tapping into a basic human emotion (or multiple ones), coupled with a highly entertaining and short video, makes this a winner in my book!

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Brendan Gahan, founder, EpicSignal

Content: Ape With AK-47

Why do you think this piece went viral?

Content that goes viral tends to have a few things going for it:

1) It causes a physiological reaction. It’s emotional enough or jarring enough that you don’t just smile or sniffle, but you laugh out loud, cry or literally jump out of your chair.

2)  Social proof—you see others commenting, liking and sharing. This kicks off a snowball effect—it's the same way nothing draws a crowd like a crowd. When you see a video with a bunch of views, likes and comments, you just assume it’s good, and you’re more likely to watch and share.

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Matthew Gratt, Buzzstream

Content: New York Times Dialect Quiz 

Why do you think this piece went viral?

I think it went viral because it gave people a way to find out something new about themselves and share it with their networks—giving the users/sharers a way to show their connections, their identity and what tribe they belong to. 

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Alfred Hermida, author, Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters

Content: What Does the Fox Say? by Ylvis 

Why do you think this piece went viral?

The inconvenient truth about viral content is that it is remarkably tricky to predict what will just take off on social media. Many of the big viral hits of the past few years, such as Kony 2012, were supported by a targeted marketing campaign. At other times, something goes viral through an elusive mix of factors.

In Tell Everyone, I chart the success of one of the top viral videos of 2013, What Does the Fox Say? by Bård Ylvisåker and Vegard Ylvisåker, known as Ylvis. The video was part of a promotional campaign for their talk show on Norwegian TV. But it leaped across borders when it caught the attention of web comic Jeff Wysaski. That brought it to the attention of Gawker, and it was then shared on Twitter by the actress and self-confessed new media geek Felicia Day. Her millions of followers did the rest, and suddenly everyone was wondering what the fox says.

The story shows how a combination of timing, topic and network shapes viral content.

For all the material that is broadcast on social media, there has to be an audience that is willing to listen. A piece of viral content has to resonate with a large number of people. Funny videos are a constant on the web, but only a few get attention on the scale of the Ylvis music video.

Viral content exploits one of the main reasons we love to share­—sharing is a way of giving back. By sharing a silly video about a silly song, we are spreading a little bit of frivolity that, hopefully, will bring a smile to a friend’s face. It also shows how emotions influence sharing. Happiness is an emotion we want to share.

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Kelsey Libert, partner, VP of marketing, Fractl

Content: Perceptions of Perfection Across Borders

Why do you think this piece went viral?

Fractl recently placed a client campaign on BuzzFeed that achieved more than 3.2 million views within several days of publication. The campaign was further syndicated to the New York Times, Gawker, The Huffington Post, Mashable, Telegraph, Business Insider, Gizmodo, Mirror, E! Online and over 550 other publishers within a week.

Viral content tends to possess viral emotions, high quality production and a unique and newsworthy angle. You can read more about this in our case study here.

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Rebecca Lindegren, director of content marketing, TrackMaven

Content: #LikeAGirl campaign from Always

Why do you think this piece went viral?

This beautiful, timely video campaign has effectively changed people’s perceptions of the phrase “like a girl”—from a previously weak and insulting connotation to one that is strong and endearing. This resonates emotionally with any woman or girl who has been told at one point in her life that she’s not strong, or smart, or powerful, or brave enough to do something as well as a man (and this probably applies to most women!). This campaign features strong, fearless and unstoppable girls to prove that doing something “like a girl” is, in fact, impressive. I have heard these videos are being shown in schools all over the country, and I hope this campaign is not only viral from a content standpoint, but that it also has a lasting effect on gender equality. 

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Erica Moss, community manager, Bitly

Content: A Couple Did a Newborn Photo Shoot With Their Dog To Stop People Asking About Babies

Why do you think this piece went viral?

One of my favorite pieces of viral content recently came courtesy of BuzzFeed (no surprise), and it featured a young married couple who were tired of being asked when they were going to have a child—so they conducted the type of photo shoot normally reserved for newborns with their puppy Humphry as the star. When it was first published, I saw it shared up and down my Facebook feed, and the story has been viewed on BuzzFeed more than 4.5 million times.

Why did it go viral? A few reasons: 1) BuzzFeed knows its audience (comprised mostly of Millennials) who, on the whole, are putting off things like marriage and having children until later in life. 2) Puppies. While cats do tend to rule the Internet, you can never go wrong with a tiny, four-legged being that looks like a teddy bear. 3) BuzzFeed makes it foolproof to distribute articles directly from its site, with share buttons at the top and bottom of every post. And while some might be feeling listicle fatigue, BuzzFeed is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

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Shaul Olmert, co-founder and CEO, Playbuzz

Content:  Which Business Leader Would Make the Best U.S. President?

Why do you think this piece went viral?

As we increasingly see more publishers and content creators using the Playbuzz platform to transform the way they tell stories online, many of these items are taking-off and getting far-higher audience engagement than they may have had if published in traditional article format—maximizing their chances for a viral effect.

A few weeks ago CNBC created and published this item: Which Business Leader Would Make the Best U.S. President?. The confluence of politics and commerce has been a hot issue for several election cycles, and now, with the iconic Donald Trump in the mix, the media zeitgeist seems to be fixated on a game of “What will he say next?”

This item on CNBC leverages these of-the-moment issues wisely, and in a way that speaks to CNBC’s own specialty and audience interests too—focusing on global mainstream news and how it relates to the business scene. They were also smart to include some of the business community’s most electric personalities. These are thought leaders and executives celebrated for their vision—people with passionate cult followings.

Package it all in a fun, interactive storytelling format that gets the audience instantly involved in the conversation, and you’ve got a hit. This item is a fun media experience that people want to weigh-in on and share across social media with their peers.

I think this item’s popularity speaks to larger factors that are often the driving forces behind why and how people consume, discover and share content online. Content that invites audience interaction, is amusing and entertaining, evokes positive emotions, and is optimized for consuming and sharing from any device are some of the most important ingredients for media experiences that have an impact across social networks. And people are primarily motivated to share content because they want to either entertain or to educate audiences, which leads to it spreading naturally across the web.

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 The Real Erlich Bachman

Sam Parr, The Hustle

Content: The Real Erlich Bachman of Silicon Valley

Why do you think this piece went viral?

This story was about someone’s journey, which typically has high engagement. It was also very funny. That’s HARD to do. We try to make our reader have two emotions: awe/shock and laughter. This one did both.

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Niketa Patel, partnerships manager of news, Twitter

Content: #LoveWins tweet

Why do you think this piece went viral?

This tweet was posted moments after the Supreme Court’s ruling about same-sex marriage, and it truly honors a profound shift in our country’s history. The sheer number of retweets and favorites speak for themselves in terms of the impact of this tweet—and the hashtag is so triumphant. The sense of pride that touched everyone that day cascaded across Twitter and then quickly transcended social media to unite a country.

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Elana Zak, social media editor, StatNews

Content: New York Magazine’s “I’m No Longer Afraid” cover story

Why do you think this piece went viral?

With more than 30,000 Facebook shares, this piece clearly hit a nerve with readers. Why? Because it evoked a strong emotional reaction in people. When a piece of content makes people feel something strongly—happiness, anger, shock, etc.—they want to share that experience with others.

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