The 5 Myths of Viral Content

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I love magic. – Harry Potter

Anyone in the business of digital media knows that the Holy Grail of content is creating something that goes “viral.” If you’ve ever created a video, an article or a brand campaign that’s taken off and been shared exponentially, it’s exhilarating.

It’s also very, very rare.

But brands often (or unknowingly) look past that, asking agencies and content creators to make the next viral video or take an already existing piece of content and “viral it up” - as if there were a secret potion (or an app) for that.

Here’s the truth: There is no magic formula to make a piece of content go viral. It’s a complex recipe that includes hard work, ingenuity, creativity, motivation, faith, money and a little bit of luck, and in each successful case study the recipe is different. This has caused a lot of misunderstanding of what actually drives viral success.

Here are five common myths of viral content – and what you should do instead:

Myth #1: “Viral” means it was done on a shoestring budget. Yes, Dollar Shave Club made a video for less than $5,000 and it was a mega-huge hit, and clothing brand Wren created the “Strangers Kissing” video (actually entitled, “First Kiss) for $1,300, which included the cost of a babysitter for the video editor. But these are the exception to the rule. There are countless other branded videos made on the cheap that aren’t even good enough to be shared by the brand’s own employees.

The larger the budget to spend on planning, production and distribution (among MANY other costs), the more likely a video is to be successful. That’s not to say that a big budget can cure a bad idea, but it makes it far easier to create a piece of content worth watching. Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video is the single-most shared philanthropic video ever, but it’s no wonder—they spend 46% of their annual budget on “media and film creation.” Westjet Real-time Giving, Dove Real Beauty, TNT Drama—they upped their chances for a viral success by investing in the production and it paid off.

Myth#2: A certain creative device will lead to viral success. Cats own the interwebs. I won’t deny that. But just putting a cat in your video will not guarantee viral success. The same goes for hidden cameras, dancing babies or even celebrities. A study conducted by Dr. Karen Nelson-Field of the Ehrenberg Bass Institute of Marketing Science found there is no correlation between creative device and sharing or creative device and emotion. Common devices used in successful viral content are also the common devices used in content that fails.

When trying to ideate around a concept that might lead to viral success, consider the type of content that will engage an audience emotionally. Is it the cat that makes us share it or simply how the content makes us feel (ex: the cat was cute, the cat was funny)? Is there a way we can make people feel that same way with a story that we actually have an authority to publish on?

Myth #3. Viral videos must be funny or slapstick. It may seem as though the vast majority of viral videos make us laugh. That’s because they do. Videos that are funny, inspirational or astonishing are shared twice as often as videos that produce different responses like despair, shock or frustration. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be funny.

This is an important distinction for brands that have a message that isn’t about humor. Many organizations trying to create social change have a message that’s actually sad, but needs to be told. SOS Children’s Villages did a fantastic job with a simple video that showed a boy sitting without a jacket at a cold bus stop and chronicled the reactions of strangers. Some helped a little, some helped a lot. It didn’t make me laugh, but it did make an impression on me (and 14 million other viewers). Instead of giving up because your brand isn’t suited for humor, try to create content that tells a gripping, appropriate story.

Myth #4: Viral means that it grew organically. One of the biggest misconceptions about viral content is that it just happened to go viral, like winning the lottery. In the grand scheme of YouTube it’s actually quite rare for a video to start from nothing and get passed around simply on merit alone. Reach and distribution plays a very large role in determining the success of a piece of content.

Like a firewood needs a spark to become a blaze, content needs a catalyst in order to reach millions, and there are a variety of ways to do this across paid, earned and owned channels. Consider reaching out to targeted influencers, partnering with a content producer and their built-in audience or purchase targeted Google ad buys (pre-roll).

Myth #5: A viral equation can be copied with success. One of the most fascinating elements of viral content is that there really is no formula. Previous viral successes are the outliers, and trying to copy their formula leads to unimpressive results. There will be countless nonprofits trying to cash in on the success of the #IceBucketChallenge, but they’ve lost the first-mover’s advantage and the movement has reached the point of saturation. We won’t see another “challenge” meme raising millions any time soon. It’s up to non-profits (and frankly all of us) to find the next viral concept that takes the world by storm.

Viral success is a constantly moving target, but by investing the time, money and effort into creating content that addresses a specific audience, tells a story, evokes emotion and is given enough of a nudge to take off, you’ll put your content and brand in a great position to succeed.

Jon Thomas is a Senior Digital Strategist at TracyLocke and frequent contributor to Say Daily. Follow him on Twitter @Its_JonT.