Virality. What is it and how to achieve it.

Virality is one of the building blocks of today’s social networks success. The feeling you get when joining a cause by liking/sharing some type of content is what makes you further use social networks.We share content because of the feelings we have when we see it or because it is useful.

But let’s try to define virality. Oxford English Dictionary defines virality as “The tendency of an image, video, or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another”.

But as Sharad Goel, Ashton Anderson, Jake Hofman, Duncan J. Watts put it here “when a piece of online media content […] it is generally understood not only to have rapidly become popular, but also to have attained its popularity through some process of person-to-person contagion, analogous to the spread of a biological virus”. So virality is achieved when something becomes very popular through a peer-to-peer distribution process, not through classic means such as broadcasting (TV, radio). Another good article on virality written by Yannick Feder mentions that “virality can only be characterized and defined by addressing simultaneously speed, reach and self-sustainability”. For example a story that has one million views but no shares is less viral than one with more shares but less view. A good research paper on the structure of virality, just to better understand it, you can find here, but in this article we will focus on what makes content viral.
Apparently online virality is a must have in marketing and it seems that some analyses have already been developed on what is virality and how it can be achieved.

Jonah Berger and Katy Milkman wrote an article in 2012 entitled “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?” that basically says:

Source: Jonah Berger and Katy Milkman
  • Positive content is more viral than negative content: content that evokes emotions is usually more viral than content without; among the content that shares emotions the positive one is more likely to become viral. You wouldn’t bet this wouldn’t you, taking into account the type of news we see on TV.  
  • Content that evokes high-arousal emotions (positive or negative) is more viral. There are certain emotions that can be classified as high arousal and among these you can find: awe, anger, anxiety, fear, lust, joy, surprise. According to the figure anger seems to be the most efficient. People really feel that they need to do something when their social justice seems threaten. On the other hand sadness, a non-arousal negative feeling, doesn’t help too much.
  • Practically useful content is also something that becomes viral more easily. Sharing practical content (in the area of how to…) seems to work as it’s embraced by many users.

Another research article, wrote by Jacopo Staiano and Marco Guerin, circles around the Valence-Arousal-Dominance (VAD) model, frequently used in psychology to categorize emotions. After them each individual emotion is a combination of three characteristics:

  • Valence respresents intrinsic attractiveness (positive valence) or aversiveness (negative valence) to an event.
  • Arousal is the state of being awoken or stimulated by something and ranges from excitement to relaxation. 
  • Dominance relates to the relationship with a specific subject or topic and ranges from submission (fear-low) to control (confidence-high).

If you are not in the mood for the whole article you can read a good analysis here. Basically, the researchers found that there is a connection between viral content and certain configurations of valence, arousal, and dominance. For example high arousal content (anger, happiness) creating low-dominance emotions (less-control, fear) was accompanied by large number of comment.

On the other hand, sharing was mostly done when users had a high dominance feeling (in control, confidence, inspiration). However, the researchers
did find negative valence contributes to higher virality, a contradictory finding with the study above.

Now that you know more or less something about virality, first of all you can concentrate on how to make things more viral when in need. Second of all you can try to filter the content that is indeed viral from the one that is just being engineered to be viral. Probably you’ve noticed how different techniques described in this article and others that I wrote (e.g. click baits) are used to promote content as viral. As the authors of “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?” have noticed “rather than targeting “special” people,it may be more beneficial to focus on crafting contagious content.”

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