Before social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter began their reign as leading information providers, popular news stories tended to be spread via word of mouth. But what once required cutting out a clipping from your favorite newspaper or magazine and passing it along to your friend can now be done with the single click of a button. Found an interesting article about the big game last night or an exposé on the latest political scandal? Simply click “Retweet” or “Share,” and in an instant your findings are being broadcasted on the feeds of all of your Twitter followers and Facebook friends.
Every so often a particular story will reach just the right audience and trigger a tidal wave of sharing across the World Wide Web, which in Internet slang is known as “going viral.” And if that sounds like a term better suited for a doctor’s office, it’s because viral is derived from the word “virus,” which is defined as an infective agent that is able to multiply within the living cells of a host. In a sense, just a disease can spread throughout an individual, a story can spread throughout the Internet.
But before understanding how something goes viral, it’s important to know that there are varying levels of virality that a story can reach. For example, stories with a more local focus may be contained to a single college campus, while the more famous cases are shared throughout the Internet, reaching millions around the world.
One of the most recent videos to go viral on the larger scale was Dove’s 2013 “Real Beauty Sketches,” in which the brand invited women to describe themselves to a sketch artist and then invited strangers to describe the same woman. In doing so, the video illustrated how women tended to see themselves in a negative light, while the strangers painted a significantly more flattering image of the women. The video wasn’t for a specific Dove product, but instead made a powerful statement about beauty and self-acceptance. As of the publication of this article, the video has been viewed on YouTube 64,087,554 times.
Other times, stories or videos go viral but on a much smaller scale. This tends to be the case in communities with shared interests, such as small towns or college campuses. For example, a story about a popular local high school student making her way from small town life to Harvard may get some attention by the locals, while the same story wouldn’t garner the same attention in another town across the country. This is also true for college campuses, which while diverse, tend to be made up of students with similar interests. Students and their parents may share an article about a proposed tuition increase at UNC Chapel Hill in an effort to combat the rising prices. However, that same article wouldn’t mean the same thing to a student at the University of Chicago, and therefore does not have the same ability to go viral as say, a more general and greater encompassing story of tuition hikes around the US might.
So now that we understand about the varying levels of virality that a piece of content can reach, we can take a look at just what goes into making something go viral. The long story short? Social media is key.
If you want to succeed on the Internet, it is imperative that you utilize social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, because they are where the magic happens. As the top two most popular social media sites, they provide the perfect place for online content to be shared. I mean, I suppose that you could take your chances and keep your blog posts solely on Blogspot or WordPress sites, but your chances of having your article seen increases exponentially when your take initiative and post it on different social media sites—and the more the better.
This is a strategy that news organizations employ to get the most views on their stories. They set up an official Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr and Instagram and use each to promote their content. My university’s newspaper (The Daily Tar Heel) and other publications across campus (such as Blue & White and Her Campus) have their own Twitters and Facebook pages (some have even expanded into other social media sites) and post to them pretty regularly.
I’ve learned firsthand that this more “aggressive” approach to getting noticed online (as opposed to patiently waiting for someone to stumble across your blog or video) is beneficial. This previous school year I was asked to start a blog for a class and we were given the option to keep the blog to ourselves or share it with others. At first, I was completely mortified about sharing my writings with my friends and family and opted to instead live off the views generated by the WordPress site alone. At the beginning, I was averaging maybe five or ten views a post—fifteen on a good day. But when I heard about the success that others were having once they started sharing—especially on Facebook—I decided to take the plunge and shared my first article on Facebook and Twitter.
My view count suddenly went from single digits to triple digits and I was reaching audiences in different countries. Granted, my success was nowhere near the vicinity of being viral content, but I think it does demonstrate the power of social media to share your content with a significantly larger audience—whether that’s a few hundred or a few hundred thousand.
In my experience, Facebook is where I received the majority of my views, and I attribute that to supportive friends and family. If you’re just starting out and trying to get noticed, never underestimate the power of your aunts, uncles, and friends to read and share your material. And yes, maybe you won’t get the thousands of views that you’re looking for, but you’ll get more than what you had before you used social media to your advantage.
And while Facebook is imperative for building up your home base, Twitter can be used to expand your following. Because more people use Twitter to search hashtags or popular search terms, you have a greater chance of having someone you’ve never met stumble upon your work. I’d also submit that there’s less of a social stigma against contacting strangers on Twitter than there is on Facebook, which is another reason Twitter is an important tool when building your social media presence.
I think that it’s important to note that in addition to using social media to share your content, there are a few other factors that go into making something go viral. Perhaps most importantly, content needs to make its audience feel something. A prime example of this is Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” that I mentioned earlier. The rigid standards imposed by popular culture is a weight that we have all felt on our shoulders, making Dove’s video something we could all relate to.
Maybe you saw Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” in which the dying professor gave a short talk about achieving your childhood dreams. It is impossible to watch the video without having tears spring to your eyes as Pausch talks about leaving behind his young family or the imminence of his passing. I’ve seen the video multiple times on my feed throughout the year, and it was shown to my class this past may as a part of our search to find the best speeches. Since it was uploaded in 2007, the video has been viewed 16,810,718 times.
Another important way to get your story to go viral is to have it shared by an individual with a large social media presence. Back in February, UNC-CH point guard Marcus Paige tweeted out the link of a two year old article by a Daily Tar Heel reporter to his 59.2k followers and caused a spike on the newspaper’s website. Of course, it’s difficult to get your content noticed by someone with some level of celebrity (I mean, we can’t all have friends with nearly sixty thousand followers tweet out our videos and blog posts), but if it happens, you are one lucky dog. For this reason, I think it’s incredibly important for college newspapers and magazines to have good relations with its athletes and other university figures (if possible) because they can lend some much needed help in realm of social media if they have a sizable following. An article on a new university policy has a lot more legitimacy if it’s retweeted or shared by the chancellor or a dean, just as a sports article seems a little more exciting on the Twitter feed of a popular point guard.
There is no secret formula for creating a viral hit. Sometimes it’s a poignant look at the beauty industry that tugs at our heartstrings, and sometimes it’s a man crying over a double rainbow. What’s important is to create quality content and to be proactive in sharing across the various social media sites.