My partner Beth Thouin believes that viral is defined by “the spreading of content from one person that leads to more than one person engaging with the content in some shape or form.” I agree that this could potentially lead to content becoming viral. But what she’s really talking about is the “organic” reach of content and how engaging it is. Basically how many unique people liked, shared, or viewed your content. This is an important factor in the viral process but not quintessentially viral. She continues with the following statement “Engagement could be a signup, a YouTube view or a purchase.” Exactly, “Engagement”. Any view, comment, like, share, click, purchase, download, or triggered action is considered engagement. Hence the term engagement.
She then goes on to discuss mathematical equations, measurements, k-factors and other coined marketing terms like “the viral coefficient”, blah, blah, blah. You can’t box viral in. It’s chaotic. It’s viral because it comes out of nowhere, spreads rapidly to any unsuspecting user, and can’t be controlled.
Let’s talk about what makes content viral
Any form of content can “go viral”, a status update, a blog post, a picture, a song, and most commonly video. But how does this happen? When does the number of views make it viral? And can you knowingly create viral content? These are tough questions. Nobody really knows what it all means and there is no standard for determining viral content, yet. But, it seems everyday people are using the term viral, or should I say mis-using the term, for press, money, or sheer ego.
Here’s my take on what viral really is
There are a number of factors that I believe relate to whether or not a piece of content is viral.
Many people have asked the question “How many views do you need to be viral? There was a time when hitting 1 million views would be considered viral. But let’s face it, any brand, personal or corporate, can hit a million views almost without trying today. That doesn’t mean that it’s viral and the whole world is talking about it. It’s just really good, or really well marketed.
I recently read this comment “A video, I submit, is “viral” if it gets more than 5 million views in a 3-7 day period.” by YouTube celeb Kevin Nalty, aka Nalts. There are 2 key factors here: 1) the number of views and 2) the speed at which they come. There are a lot of experts, including myself, who believe that a key factor in viral content is the rate at which it spreads. Viral content spreads rapidly “infecting” unique user after unique user, quickly expanding beyond the boundaries of the community in which it was original produced for. As it invades other communities new users become intrigued and the pattern continues at a rate so fast that millions become witness to it in days – it goes viral!
Granted, reserving the title “viral” for content with at least 5 million views is strict, but content with a million or less views taper off quickly and no one remembers them. The big sharks draw 5, 6, 10, 20 million views in a short period of time and continue to grow. They live on and when we think of viral we think of them.
A few examples:
What do they all have in common? These videos grew organically; no advertising dollars; little or no budget to produce. Most importantly, the authors caught something on video or just had a crazy idea and uploaded it for fun. There was no predetermined intention to “go viral”, it just did.
You need more than just views. Beyond the millions of people who’ve seen and commented on your video, read your post, laughed at your meme, etc. there’s got to be a lot of buzz around it too. Like Beth mentioned in her post, sharing and liking are very important to getting the ball rolling, but it needs to be the talk of the town. Once your content starts popping up on other people’s blogs, reddit, Facebook shares, Tweets, and eventually in the media, the virus is kicking in. Media is crucial. If your content ends up on TV, chances are it’s already viral and that exposure will just lead to even more views.
Unlike Beth, I use “the mom co-efficient”. I know something is viral when my mother calls me up and says “have you seen that Harlem shaky thing?”.
Have a little fun or just be stupid
I’ve blogged about this before, most recently in my post Video of the Week – DollarShaveClub, Our Blades are F**king Great!. Content that takes a poke at something or someone, is a parody, or just plain dumb and ridiculous will always get more attention. People like to laugh. If they laugh, they share, and so on. When people start to re-mix your video on YouTube, make a meme of you or your product, or write reactionary posts, you know you’re viral.
If your content has millions of views, people are talking about it all over the web and in media, and all this happens in just a few weeks – Congrats, you’ve gone viral! However, will anyone remember it or you? What’s the point of “going viral” if a few months later no one remembers?
Remember Double Rainbows, Charlie Sheen’s “Winning”, Sad Keanu, Dancing Baby (left), LOL Cats, Unicorns Poop Rainbows? You get my point. People are still cracking double rainbow jokes and referencing “winning”. These are true examples of viral phenoms.
Like the video examples above, they all became viral organically. It wasn’t planned, it just happened. No one creates rainbow unicorn poop in hopes that it will be memed by millions, it was a fun idea that took off. True viral is about having no goal. It’s not about conversions, CPAs, KPIs, ROIs, or any another form of calculative data. It’s unpredictable. If the latter happens, good for you, but don’t count on it!
Paid vs. Organic
Finally, let’s discuss a major key factor in viral – Paid vs. Organic. It’s important to understand the difference. I really like how Facebook defines the difference:
- Organic reach: The number of unique people who saw your post in a News Feed or on your Page, including people who saw it from a story shared by a friend when they liked, commented on or shared your post, answered a question or responded to an event.
- Paid reach: The number of unique people who saw your post through an ad.
Note: Viral reach is now counted as part of organic reach.
Yes, I understand that Facebook’s definition of organic reach is basically what Beth was expressing in her post and that Facebook now considers that viral. Differences aside for a second, what’s important here is dollar signs.
If you put advertising dollars into a campaign to drive traffic to your content in hopes that it goes viral, the reality is it will never be viral. It may get lots of engagement, but you paid for that. Granted, as a marketing guy I will always recommend spending money on ads to drive traffic but I would never package that as a “viral campaign”. Why? Because if you don’t already buy into my philosophy of “what makes content viral” then you can’t see why organic reach is so essential to the process. True viral is organic. That’s what makes it spread so rapidly, in such a short period of time, and gives it meaning so that it will live on.
A good friend of mine, Julien Smith, once said on a panel “Get drunk with your staff one night, film it, upload it and see what happens.” Depending on who your company is, that might just do the trick.
A few tips that may lead to viral content
If you want to have some fun, not worry about the numbers, and just see what happens follow these tips and you may get lucky with viral content.
- Forget CPAs, KPIs, ROIs, or any acronym
- Don’t have a plan
- Spend little or no money
- It’s not a campaign, it’s a side project
- Don’t tell your boss, just do it!
A final word to Beth – “Mess with the best, die like the rest!”
*First person to write in the comments of this post what movie that final quote came from – wins a KEEP MARKETING FUN tee!