The mystique of “going viral”: Key insights into tapping this phenomenon

by | Oct 7, 2015 | Public Relations, Social Media

Whether they work in advertising, journalism or PR, everyone tasked with creating content dreams of tapping into the perfect topic and having a piece that goes viral outside of their usual audience. But what is it that makes up that elusive viral element?

To get to the bottom of it, my team at Communications@Syracuse recently asked 16 thought leaders to identify a piece of content that went viral and briefly comment with their opinion of why that piece went viral. The answers they provided were illuminating, touching on the importance of everything from prosociality to metadata in helping a piece go viral.

One key element multiple contributors commented on was the ability of viral content to toy with our emotions. In talking about the ALS ice bucket challenge, author Jonah Berger noted that the campaign “evoked lots of high arousal emotion, like surprise.” Sarah Fudin, director of corporate brand marketing at 2U, elaborated further in her commentary on the 100 Days Without Fear campaign, saying that “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.” Kelsey Libert, partner and VP of marketing at content marketing agency Fractl, agreed: “Viral content tends to possess viral emotions, high quality production and a unique and newsworthy angle.”

Emotion, however, wasn’t the only element that our contributors believed factored into virality.  Prosociality, voluntary behavior designed to help others, was also noted as a key factor in content going viral. If a piece was thought to be helpful to a wider audience, like the ALS ice bucket challenge nominated by Jonah Berger or the New York Times Dialect Quiz nominated by Matt Gratt of Buzzstream, users were more likely to share it. Author Alfred Hermida reiterated this when discussing his nomination of What Does the Fox Say? by Ylvis: “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.”

Emotion, prosociality, and metadata—none of these factors, on their own, explain why content goes viral, but put together, our thought leaders’ answers go a long way toward explaining why some content takes off and others fall flat. How can you incorporate these viral elements into your next piece of content? The answer may be the difference between content that’s vapid and content that’s viral.

Jenna Dutcher is the Inbound Marketing Manager for Communications@Syracuse, the online Master’s in Communications from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

Jenna Dutcher


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