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The Myth of ‘Going Viral’

The Myth of Going Viral

Since the rise of social media, the concept of ‘going viral’ has captured the imaginations of digital marketers across the globe. Over the past decade, advertisers have developed theories of ‘viral’ marketing, that, to quote Time Magazine, “assumes that a great idea is self-distributing, and word of mouth can take a little thing and turn it into a phenomenon.”

Implicit in this concept is the idea that the Internet is a perfect democracy, where all content is equal; and ideas are disseminated in a cascading fashion.

However, how realistic are these expectations? In the following article we will look to current research on viral content and look at what it really takes to make an impression in a digital world.

What Do We Mean By ‘Going Viral’?

In the same way pop songs are ‘infectious’, and products can be ‘contagious’, content can ‘go viral’. When epidemiologists talk about things going ’viral’, they refer to a disease that infects more than one person before it (or the host) dies.

Similarly, when we say that a piece of online media content has ‘gone viral’ it is generally understood that it has not only become popular rapidly, but has attained it’s popularity through a process of peer-to-peer contagion analogous to the spread of a biological virus.


Why ‘Going Viral’ Is Harder Than You Think

Many authors and marketing gurus would have you believe that by following their guidance, you can generate instant influence. Robert Wynne, of Forbes Magazine, puts it best,

“Most of this advice follows the ‘Grand Slam Home Run’ theory preaching the tricks and tactics to make your post, tweet, photo or video go viral so you can quit work early and watch your bank deposits between pilates class, an afternoon nap and a vanilla latte with almond milk.”

First of all, let’s put some things into context:

  • 5 billion items of content are posted each day on Facebook;
  • 500+ million Tweets go out daily
  • 500 million users are on LinkedIn

That’s a lot of content to compete with, and, according to Tony Halle of Chartbeat, “most people who click don’t read [articles]” and, “a stunning 55 percent spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page.”

While it is certainly true that a small number of videos, posts, or articles may experience rapid unexpected popularity, recent collaborative studies from Stanford University, Microsoft Research and Yahoo! Research tell a very different story to that of what most ‘viral marketers’ propound.


How ‘Viral Media’ Spreads

Studies conducted by Sharad Goel and Ashton Anderson of Stanford University and Jake Hofman and Duncan Watts of Microsoft Research, have debunked much of what we thought we knew about ‘viral media’.

The researchers studied the spread of millions of messages on Twitter. What they found was that less than 10 percent of all messages were shared at all, and less than 1 percent were diffused seven times.

What they concluded from their studies was that popularity on the Internet is not derived from one-to-one shares as commonly believed, but by a few one-to-one-million blasts. Oftentimes, when it seems that a post has gone viral out of nowhere, there are unrecognised but influential ‘dark broadcasters’ within the information cascade, who are responsible for sharing content to many people at once.

“We find that structural vitality is typically low, and remains so independent of size, suggesting that popularity is largely driven by the size of the largest broadcast,” says Shared Goel.

“The spread of information is more similar to a broadcast of the Super-Bowl than a fast-moving virus. The difference is that in broadcasting, a message is sent to people directly – whereas a viral spread relies on spreading via word of mouth.”


An Example of ‘Going Viral’

To demonstrate the findings in the study above, Microsoft Research observed a video published on April 24th 2012, World Malaria Day, by media relations executive Tracy Zamot. The original malaria video was tweeted just once, but generated over 16,000 retweets.

Of the 96 comments under the video, over sixty percent made mention or thanked Justin Bieber, Greyson Chance, or Ashton Kutcher. All three celebrities has shared the video to more than a million followers each.

Popularity on the Internet, it seems, is still defined by broadcasts from influencers, publishers and broadcasters. What has changed since the 20th century, is that the Internet has facilitated far more broadcasting channels with the power to reach millions. Oftentimes, there are hidden influencers within a network.


What Can Digital Marketers Do To Build Their Popularity?

Identifying the myth of ‘going viral’ allows marketers and their clients to moderate their expectations. Popular content doesn’t just happen overnight, it requires building an engaged audience over a long period of time.

While you may never ‘go viral’ and reach millions of people with your content, there are certain things that you can do to make your content more shareable. Below we have listed seven strategies you can employ to build up an engaged audience.


1. Be consistent

Consistency is key to building a brand. With your content marketing, you should make sure that the quality of the content you produce is always of a high standard. You also want to make sure the design of your content is coherent with your overall body of work.


2. Use visuals

Visuals are easily digestible. At The Lead Agency, we believe that visuals can be used to inspire, help and humanise your brand and messaging. If you want some more tips as to how to improve the quality of your visuals, refer to our 3 Ways To Create More Visually Appealing Content.


3. Use less words

People have short attention spans, especially online. Most online users will not take more than a few seconds to digest information. As a result, you have to tell most of your story using imagery and design. If you want your content to be shared, focus on cutting down the copy.


4. Identify trending topics

Trending topics are able to hook audiences easily. Not only will your audience be familiar with the topic, but they will likely be curious to find out more about what everyone else is so interested in. If you are going to deal with a trending topic in your content marketing, make sure to attack the topic from a unique perspective.


5. Target influencers

If there is anything that can be learnt from the studies above, it is that the sharing of content hinges on influencers. Getting influential brands and people to broadcast your content is the best way of building an audience.



Although the Internet has brought us a long way away from the centralised models of communication of the 20th century, communication is still largely localised. Ideas don’t tend to spread too far unless they are broadcasted directly from influencers.

Given this, digital marketers should focus their attention on building engagement with their existing network, and growing gradually over time by sharing consistently high quality content.

If you are interested in reading the studies referenced in this article you can access the study conducted by Microsoft Research and Stanford University here, and the study conducted by Yahoo! Research here.

If you are interested in learning more about B2B influencer marketing for your business, click the following link to read The Art of Influencer Marketing For B2B.

The Lead Agency is a dedicated B2B Marketing Agency. Our clients choose us because we solve their complex B2B marketing problems. We focus on the B2B buying journey by addressing digital, data, content, communications, technology, lead generation/nurturing to create more leads and better quality leads.

If you are interested in advice for your B2B business please contact The Lead Agency using the form below. Our speciality is lead generation, B2B SEO, B2B Adwords and prospects for your business and building strong, resilient ties with them.

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