From the Oscars slap to the Sprite challenge. From obscure debates about doors and wheels to military dads surprising their kids after coming home. From Tik Tok dances to a story of a young Ukrainian soldier sacrificing himself to save dozens of his fellow country people. Viral content comes in many forms.
Eliciting tears and laughter alike, the definition of “viral” is broad and open-ended. But there is one thing that all viral content has in common, and that is that it demands our attention.
As social media and the internet spill over with more and more people and content, the challenge of standing out amongst the clutter feels insurmountable. The fight for our attention is hotting up, and content needs to become more shocking, more funny, more grotesque, more maddening, or more tear-jerking to halt our scrolling. Attention is currency, and a generous 3 seconds is all you have to spend.
But how does one go viral? What motivates us to press share? And how can brands use these trends to carry organisational messages? We asked our UK insight community for the secret sauce to virality — and whether brands should bandwagon on these trends. Here’s what they have to say…
With connotations of an infection growing rapidly, virality embodies the snowball effect of information online that can be used positively or negatively. Born to YouTube with digital age antiques such as ‘Charlie bit my finger’ and ‘Gangnam Style’, virality itself has gone viral: now, viral content has spread to Instagram reels, TikToks, and tweets. The majority voted that TikTok is the most conducive to virality.
There are a number of interpretations and standards people have for what virality is, as seen in the varying opinions of our UK community. From something that captures the zeitgeist of a generation to something that offers commentary on the absurdity of a shared experience to something that simply attracts great numbers of engagement, there was one crucial vein of truth that ran through the answers. Authenticity.
A 24 year old community member remarked that viral content cannot be made with the intention of going viral, lest the creator risk the flood of comments accusing them of being ‘cringe-inducing’ or ‘staged’.
Our community had a vast variation in their opinion of the numbers it takes to be considered viral. Some said tens of thousands, others said hundreds of thousands, and many even argued in the millions!
“When you get a huge number of likes, shares and comments — far more than you’d get with a normal post and from people you’ve never even interacted with before. it would also see lots of conversation in response to your post.” — Community Member, Female, 37
“I think it’s less to do with numbers, but more the social / cultural effect something has, like that it taps into a mood of the moment or something.” — Ruth N, Female, 36
“Anything that is liked or shared numerous times, over 10s of thousands. Whether it’s retweets, likes, shares, reactions, etc.” — Community Member, Female, 31
“Something that spreads because people resonate with it and want to share it with others. It comes via word of mouth and social media, and can’t be fake or staged.” — Community Member, Nonbinary, 21
“I feel like it has to be spoken about, when something has gone viral then more people know about it than not. It’s something you will see pop up all over social media, and not just the original content, but references to it and memes etc.” — Community Member, Female, 24
“Clearly it has to be ‘liked’ and shared a lot. Usually if it is something that is talked about by my friends or work colleagues then it may be something that has gone viral.” — Sa Kaelda, Female, 49
“I feel as though viral tends to be viewed within the millions. Something that most people you meet will have seen or heard about in some way.” — Community Member, Male, 24
“It needs to be authentic and not made with the intention of being viral.” — Community Member, Male, 24
“I think it’s when it becomes extremely popular and current trending. Thousands up to millions of people like, comment or share it.” — Maria G, Female, 50
Virality is unpredictable. The beauty — and the difficulty — of it is that it has to be new and original. 66% of the community says it takes something significant or special about the post to engage with it.
The top three most engaging content types, according to the UK community, are funny posts, posts about interests and passions, and posts by friends and family. Similarly, the community would rather engage with posts from people they know over those by brands, meme pages, or
news outlets. Brands, therefore, have an uphill battle to capture attention, and to become truly viral, they must imitate and infiltrate the power of genuine, authentic content that comes from loved ones.
When posts are shared by friends and family, they are given a stamp of quality that sets them aside against the content shared directly by content creators, brands, or meme pages. The power of word of mouth, of authentic advocacy, is at the heart of viral trends. Viewers share content with their loved ones and followers, and it is this community based instinct to democratise the humour, sadness, or shock experienced from a video or picture that makes content go viral. At their core, posts are promulgated when they are genuinely enjoyed, when they are authentic, and when they encourage viewers to interact with them.
84% of the community use social media to enjoy content, and 78% use it to keep up with friends. With this holy matrimony of entertainment and community, viral content has opportune conditions.
Here is what some of our community members had to say about engaging with posts:
“Something that is interesting, funny or thought-provoking.” — Community Member, Male, 44
“If it stirs some kind of emotion in me. If it’s funny. If it’s a post from a family member or friend. Same for if it’s wholesome or sharing good news.” — Community Member, Female, 44
“It needs to be relevant to me.” — Bhaven B, Male, 34
“If it’s something I’m interested in or feel strongly about. Or if a friend or family posts a photo of themselves doing something interesting.” — Community Member, Female, 38
“If it evokes certain emotions.” — Community Member, Female, 18
“I feel moved or attached to the post. If the post affects my emotions in a positive way I am normally inclined to engage with it.” — Rashmi, Female, 24
“Life events of friends and family. Humorous posts. Achievements. Information posts related to my interests.” — Shauna, Female, 34
Arguably the most common way something goes viral is through a re-post. It is pretty common among our UK community — almost half say they often repost on social media. Further, another common form of viral sharing can happen at a more individual or small group level. 45% of our UK community says they share posts via direct message, 35% say by text message, and 31% say in-person.
Given that word of mouth advocacy is a direct route for virality, and that content goes viral through authentic means of communication, brands must remember that real voices need to be at the heart of their social media content.
But what does it take for someone to re-post or share a post? With all the different content out there, what stands out to people the most? Well, for a lot of our UK community, it seems quite personal. 52% say they share posts based on interests and passions, while the next highest is a family or friends post at 35%, with breaking news right behind at 34%.
Interestingly, despite the very nature of viral trends being audience participation, resharing, and authentic growth, our community’s interaction with them rested more in viewing than in participation. Despite loving watching a viral TikTok dance or viewing a newsworthy story, less than 1 in 3 would take part in a trend themselves. Much of the audiences on social media exist to observe, rather than create. However, even the act of observing is absorbing — and the power of virality is its ability to spread awareness like wildfire.
Truly successful viral content will overcome this apathy to interaction. It takes something special to hit share.
Brands entering the virality space must walk the trend tightrope with caution to get the balance just so, lest they risk the damnation of ‘cringe’.
However, should they enter it successfully, they can harness this untrammelled power to get their message across to millions. The snowball effect of social media will mean that once your controversial or captivating video, picture, or tweet is out there — your audience will do the rest.
Although, sometimes a brand or a product itself that goes viral. 85% of our community believe products can go viral. Many think all press is good press, as half of our community say they would be more likely to buy a product if it went viral.
And it’s not just exposure to other people’s posts about a product that helps. 58% of our community said they would post about a product they loved on social media. With an army of consumers excited about your product, wanting to get involved in trends, and keen to promote their positive experience with your brand, your marketing becomes easier with UGC.
Furthermore, when 74% of our global insights community said they’d promote a product to their contacts if the quality was good enough, there’s huge potential for your customers to become the next wave of advocates.
As Mark Earls says, “How do you explain the explosion of cultural phenomena? Like the adoption of text messaging when there has been little or no active promotion of the behaviour? How a Mexican wave happens? The emergence of online communities? Unless you have a good explanation of how these kind of things arise, you won’t have much chance of altering them.” Earls, who believes copying and community are essential to human development, argues that we are social animals who operate as a herd.
Gone are notions of individualism, instead, we operate like a school of fish or flock of birds, moving as one. Just as dolphins can manipulate the movement of the fish, so too can brands influence the homogeneity of online communities to deposit their brand message in the pool of ideas like a drop of ink.
Now to the big question: What does virality truly mean to people? Simply put by our UK community, it has to do with the rapid spread and popularity of the viral content or story, as 75% of the community said they attribute virality to rapid circulation. The least attributed one was sadness, coming in at 19%.
When discussing the purpose of virality, an overwhelming 92% of the community said ‘yes’ or ‘sometimes’ when asked if virality can be used for good. To add onto that, 88% said it can be used to raise awareness for issues.
There are many things that can ‘go viral’ according to our community. When asked if a funny video, a meme, an emotional video, a tik tok trend, and a news story could go viral, the community said yes to all. The most common answers were a funny video at 80% and an emotional video at 73%.
The big thing we discovered about virality is how and why something catches our attention. 80% of the community says that things go viral because it appeals to our emotions. Laughter seems to be the most common emotion that makes something go viral according to the community.
The meaning of the word “viral” can still be up for debate and people will interpret it in different ways. We all have different social media habits, different standards, and different interests too. The truth is, virality is truly unpredictable. And that is part of its power.
One thing someone loves, someone else will not like. With all the different people there are in the world, it is hard to find something that millions of people all like or at the very least demands our attention. It has to be compelling, knock our socks off, or bring on the waterworks. When something is viral or blows up, it moves us in some way. A way we sometimes can’t describe or understand.
Here are a few things you and your brand should keep in mind when dealing with virality.
1. The early bird catches the worm.
When you witness a viral trend, it is almost always an opportunity. Never take your eyes off the ball, because those that get involved in these trends first are the ones that make the biggest impact. The early bird catches the worm when it comes to virality, so always be eagle eyed to spot the next big conversation.
2. Don’t just hop on the bandwagon — reinvent the wheel.
It’s not just about getting involved, it’s about creating the next viral trend. Think big, analyse what makes something go viral for your target audience, and get posting. A prime example of a trend that carried a profound organisational message is the ALS ice bucket challenge. Creating trends, not just following them, is the key.
3. Word of mouth wins. Always.
The essence of virality is the human need to share. At Bulbshare, sharing ideas, authentic advocacy, and building communities of content creators is our life blood.