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What Makes Something Go Viral?

Picture of Bridget Meyers

Bridget Meyers

Viral content is fascinating to think about. One story, picture, video… whatever it may be, that manages to capture the attention of millions, if not billions of people. So what makes some content pieces go viral and not others? Can you create content with the intention of it going viral or is it a completely organic process? Well, the answer is a little bit of both!


YouTube’s Trend Manager, Kevin Allocca, was able to isolate three components to viral content:


These are the people that start the popularity for content – think Jimmy Kimmel sharing a funny video or meme. In what started as a simple share of something funny, Mr. Kimmel has kick-started the path to going viral. After viewers see the content on his popular talk show, they share it on social media, they text it to friends and some probably even email it to their list of contacts.

Participation communities:

Once content has been shared from the original tastemaker, the ability to make something go viral is in the hands of a “participation community.” Whether or not users interact with the content plays a huge part in its viral fame. Take the angry Arthur meme that was popular over the summer – there isn’t just one version. Viewers felt a connection to the meme on such a personal level that they decided to create their own version. The individuals are part of a participation community, they are actively interacting with content and are helping it reach viral status.


Finally, and this may be more common in videos, but viral content almost always contains something unexpected. Think of all the America’s Funniest Home Videos you have seen, sure some of them are predictable, but the ones that shock you are some of the best to watch. The surprise ending excites people and this feeling is what helps the video get circulated.

If you set out to make something go viral, chances are you won’t have much luck since you alone cannot make something viral. As author Seth Godin put it, “You must start by focusing on one person and something they care about and from there it will take care of itself.” The idea is that if you narrow in on one person’s interest so perfectly, they will feel bad if they don’t share it with others. This is your tastemaker, from there they will send it to your “participation community” and the unexpectedness of how deeply viewers relate to the content will propel your content to viral fame.



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