To go viral, here’s what content has to make you feel

oldspiceman
Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” generated over 45 million hits on YouTube. (YouTube)

Every business dreams of “going viral”—their content passed from device to device like some kind of 21st century bubonic plague—except instead of carrying death and destruction, viral content spreads the word about innovative, customer-focused brands throughout the world.

It’s impossible to predict what will “go viral” and, while all viral content has certain features in common, simply copying the methodology won’t ensure your own content goes viral. Speaking to the New York Times about his recent viral video for the subscription-based razor company Dollar Shave Club, Mike Dubin says he would never be able to replicate the video’s success (more than 10 million views on YouTube). “There’s never going to be anything like the first one that launched a new business that no one had ever heard of and did it in a fun way. That element of surprise and being new is something we will never have again.”

But all viral content shares common features. As a brand, ensuring your content incorporates somes of them will improve your chances of going viral.

A Real Problem

Viral content needs to address real-world problems. You’re aiming to create content that makes readers and viewers think, “Oh, I know just what they mean! I experience this problem all the time.”

Shopping for razors, never having a matching pair of socks, dog hair on the furniture, finding a reliable babysitter: these are all real-life, relatable problems. Finding private jet insurance, hiring a maid, choosing an expensive watch: these are not relatable for most people.

Real-world problems are experienced by many people in all different walks of life—they’re relatable on a basic, human level. The broader and more relatable your problem—and the way in which you depict that problem in your content—the bigger your potential audience will be.

Eliciting Emotion

Two University of Pennsylvania professors analyzed the New York Times’ most-emailed list, and came up with a list of factors that contributed to content going viral. They discovered that posts inspiring feelings of awe, anger or anxiety are shared more often than others, with anger being the most viral emotion of all. Anger is usually generated at the topic, but since brands will usually avoid controversy if possible, awe is a pretty safe emotion to target.

So how do you inspire awe with your content? That’s where your creative team comes in—they brainstorm a variety of creative ideas—larger-than-life concepts, stunning design elements, novel ideas, hilarious hijinks, intelligent innovations, and raw human emotion will be combined to create the feeling of awe.

Humor

“The Internet is just a world passing around notes in a classroom.” —Jon Stewert.

“Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers. Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats.” —Ethan Zuckerman.

Most viral campaigns are widely shared because they make people laugh. Brands-based campaigns launch many smaller brands—because they’re willing to take the risk on a style and delivery that the bigger companies won’t try. In his blog post Shut Up and Be Funny, Mike Pantoliano talks about some of the issues brands face when considering humor in a campaign, and how they can get around them.

Timing and Delivery

How you deliver your content and when are two vital factors often overlooked by brands. The key is to find the days or times when your content is most in demand—this might be a certain time of year, day of the week, or in conjunction with another event. For example, Dubin released his video days before the SXSW (South by Southwest) tech-expo—when the world’s media was focused around technology and innovation.

Content should be delivered in a format that makes the biggest impact for the brand and enables the content to be shared easily. Often, content is released on social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest, and now more than ever it is visual-based. Visual content—be that images, infographics or video—gives brands more bang for their buck in terms of user engagement and “shareability.”

The Element of Surprise

In his article The Importance of Going First, Seth Godin explains that the originator of a novel idea will reap an outsize share of the benefits and, while attention is focused on him, turn that attention into the foundation of a great business. The second person might have a better product, or superior service, or a better price, but they will always lack that element of surprise. Says Godin, “The second person to write a story about a young boy and an escaped slave on the Mississippi wasn’t a novelist, he was a typist.”

In recent years, there have been some fantastic viral campaigns invoking the element of surprise, including Samsung’s Extreme Sheep Art, where well-trained sheep were outfitted with LED lights and moved around to create intricate and often hilarious artwork. And the The Man Your Man Could Smell Like commercial from Old Spice paired surreal humor with a handsome man to great effect.

Distribution Matters

You can give your content a nudge toward popularity by partnering with social influencers such as bloggers, tweeters and other social media stars, or celebrities. If these influencers are sharing your content, it gains a visibility and authority it might not have obtained by itself.

If you don’t have access to bloggers and influencers, then find your true advocates—even a small group of advocates can ignite amazing movements and help the word travel fathers.

Viral content can’t be predicted, and a successful campaign can’t be copied, but brands and content producers can still learn from successful viral campaigns. By asking why a certain campaign went viral, and adopting some of the tactics and techniques of the marketers, a brand stands a much better chance of obtaining that elusive marketing prize.

You can follow Ekaterina on Twitter at @Ekaterina. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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