Hidden secrets of viral social media

The Hidden Secrets Behind Viral Social Media Marketing

For many bloggers, webmasters and entrepreneurs there's nothing quite as exciting as seeing an article or brand mention taking on a life of its own and generating mind-boggling amounts of interest and juicy, juicy traffic.

Viral content is the dream!

Unfortunately, like many dreams worth chasing, it can pretty hard to come by. But that shouldn't stop anyone from trying.

The truth is that almost any content, from anywhere, can ignite a spark of interest that spreads like wildfire. The problem is that the secret sauce that converts one piece of content into a viral juggernaut while leaving another to languish in obscurity is fairly hard to pin down.

In fact...

Viral content is difficult to reproduce because the recipe constantly changes.

But there are some interesting commonalities that occur across a wide range of niches that seem to play a role in determining why content goes viral. And, knowing these, we can improve our own chances of generating the right content, for the right people, at the right time.

1. NOT quality

It's really not about how great your content is.

Industry experts constantly reinforce the notion that viral content can be achieved through brute-force quality.

The majority of viral content I have ever been exposed to was completely amateurish and essentially unplanned. Coincidence, basically. Here's a fun example that racked up a mere 840 million views:

It's not hard to understand why the industry would adopt the position that it's all about how great your content is, because no-one in their right mind would hire on an expensive marketer who's bold turnaround strategy for the company is, "let's wing it and hope for the best".

So by all means, create the best quality content you can because that will absolutely build up trust and authority for your brand. It will help establish and build relationships with industry players, and all sorts of other good things, but it won't lead to viral content. Not by itself, anyway.

2. Quirk

Investing a huge amount of time, effort and research into creating stunning content that simply blows readers away with its insights, breadth of coverage, research, and copy-writing is a recipe for popular content. Not necessarily content that goes viral.

We recently put together a list of awesome marketing articles every entrepreneur should read, and all of these articles are well researched, offer great insights, and are beautifully written.

However, none of them have that quirk factor.

Articles like these are targeting people looking for specific types of information and delivering it. They aren't reaching out and slapping you on the forehead to make you sit up and take notice, and they aren't promising something mind-bending, face-melting or side-splitting.

It is extremely unlikely that creating any content on a well established, understood and known topic is going to go viral.

So what are the characteristics of quirkiness?

Can't be faked

"You can pretend to be serious, but you can't pretend to be funny."

The same concept applies to quirkiness. It's not sufficient to create an article headline saying "3 face-melting chilli recipes to share with your dead relatives". While the headline may be enough to grab the attention of a few people, unless there is something genuinely quirky there, it won't get far.

Like forcing a smile for the camera, trying to force content to be something that qualifies for viralness can appear faked - and that is enough to turn people off. It has to be natural, like this:


Something about the content needs to be novel in a way that overcomes the readers' apathy and causes them to take action by sharing it on their preferred platform(s). Something can be novel if it is:

  • Completely new
  • Startling
  • Unexpected
  • Counter-intuitive
  • Unreal
  • Unbelievable, but true
  • Amazing
  • Enraging
  • Endearing
  • ...

Quirky image of underwater dog that went viral

Basically, anything that humans find note-worthy in their own lives. We love to discover new things, we hate to have our belief systems challenged, we like to bicker and complain, schadenfreude (taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune), we feel protective and loving, we like to feel important, we experience and feel loss, and so on.

At it's heart, quirkiness is something completely human.

3. Network effect

Think of social networks as rooms in a house. They have doors and windows in between them, but fundamentally they are separate spaces. Each social network has its own space filled with its own people, who may or may not wander between rooms to chat with other people from time to time.

Social networks are like adjacent rooms in a building

Because each room is different, it stands to reason that different things will happen. Every room is unique at any given time, so predicting precisely what is going to happen is not possible. It's a chaotic system, like the weather, and small changes can lead to massively differing outcomes.

So what can we say about how the network effect contributes to viralness?

Every network uses a series of metrics to determine which content is more popular and which content is likely to be of interest. Basically, they measure shares and likes and rank content accordingly.

The more shares and likes a piece of content receives, the more people get to see it in trending or recommended lists, the more shares and likes it gets. And so on.

Some brands build up a large following of people on one or more networks so that when they share a piece of content there is a higher chance of being able to hit that minimum threshold of interest and engagement to set that piece of content on the right trajectory to make a real impact.

Let's say that a piece of content needs 200 likes before it appears on a trending list. If you have 2000 followers to share that piece with, it may be that you hit the trending list by doing no more than posting the content and sharing it with your followers.

If you can't understand why some people are constantly generating buzz from the same quality content you produce, it's likely the result of their reach and the network effect.

Of course, not everyone can get their content in front of thousands of people straight away. Almost everyone has to build alliances with influencers and brands to help extend their reach into areas where they aren't necessarily as strong.

That's where influencers play an extremely important, but subtly complex role.

4. Influencers

An influencer is someone who has built up a following in one or more niches, on one or more networks. People trust the opinions of people they follow, hence they can be influenced by the content shared with them.

But, here's the thing. You have to know the right influencers, because they aren't all equal, and they don't all offer the same thing. If you have a large Twitter following that overlaps significantly with another influencer in your niche, it's unlikely that you stand to benefit as much from a tweet by them, as someone who could reach an entirely different group of people.

So which influencers are the best?

Some influencers have tightly focused followers in one network, but others are more like generalists. They have some people following them from a bunch of different networks. A tightly focused influencer is likely the best option if you want to sell something to a specific audience. But a generalist is far more likely to be of use to someone wanting to generate buzz around some content.

Going back to our rooms in a house analogy, a generalist influencer is one of those people who has friends in each room. They can pop in, share a bit of news, and move onto the next room helping that piece of content take root in many different places.

In other words, they are able to make your own clustered network more fluid.

Social influencers have clustered networks

Most sites have lopsided followings that favor certain networks, or produce content that is favored by one network over another. Take a look at this BuzzSumo result that shows how certain sites favor different networks that remain pretty insular:

BuzzSumo demonstrates how different sites rely on different networks

Note that for related topics, the New York Times generated more than 80% of its social shares on FaceBook, while Forbes generated more than 99% on Pinterest.

Identify and build relationships with influencers in such a way as to maximize your reach and potential to generate buzz across many networks simultaneously.

Your influencer network needs to be both clustered and fluid. It should have enough saturation to make an impact in one network, but enough fluidity to travel between networks.

It's not an easy task. It will take time and effort to find the right people and nurture relationships with them.

Of course, here's where producing high quality content comes back into play because most influencers will only want to surround themselves with allies who reflect well on them. Without being able to demonstrate you are worth their time, it is unlikely you'll make enough friends to gain any real traction.

5. Context & focus

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end their either because no matter how much influence you can exert over networks of people, if their attention is drawn to something else, you will find it difficult to have an impact.

Think of a social network a bit like the Eye of Sauron. It's ever watchful. But it's gaze is kind of semi-autonomous in the sense that a crowd of people can make aggregate type decisions about what they are interested in and what they want to do - so the beam of focus wanders over the content landscape.

Social networks have beams of focus like the eye of Sauron

Thinking of the attention of a social network like a focused beam (in fact, there are plenty of sub-groups, each with their own sphere of interest and mini beam of focus) means that you have two options:

  1. Ignore the topic of focus and try avert the beam towards your content
  2. Look at where the beam is focused, and put content in front of it

There are very few publishers with the clout to pull off the first option, and almost no individuals. This leaves option 2 for the rest of us mortals. The underlying message is stay on trend.

Staying on trend is not enough to go viral. It's no good pumping out on-trend content that doesn't meet all the previous criteria for viralness discussed. Without quirk, the network effect, the right influencers, and the right time and place it is very hard to hit the jackpot.

Ultimately, producing viral content is about who you know, how well you can judge the current needs of the various social networks, and how well you can engineer quirk.

Since virtually all of those ingredients can change and evolve (i.e. are fluid), it can be difficult to nail down a reproducible formula. That's precisely why so many examples of viral content simply came out of the blue (like Charlie bit my finger, and Grumpy cat), produced by people who had no idea whether or not it would become popular.

In some ways, the fact that is almost impossible to consistently produce viral content, yet it can created by anyone at any moment, makes it quite an exciting aspect of online marketing. No?

Have you ever created content that went viral? How much traffic and social shares did it generate, and what, if any, lasting benefits did you experience?

Have I covered everything here, or am I missing some other important factors?

Share your tips, ideas and experiences in the comments.