What makes it go viral?

Apr 16, 2014

Ever since the very first cute kitten video (or whatever else it was that went viral), individuals and marketers have been looking to post content online that attracts millions of views. Now, researchers from Stanford, Facebook and Cornell say they have developed a system, which can predict viral events up to 88 percent of the time.

The key to the research was finding patterns in "cascades," which describe videos or photos that have been shared multiple times. The problem with researching cascades, according to the researchers, was the infrequency with which they occurred. Looking at photos on Facebook, the researchers discovered that only one in 20 photos posted on the site get shared even once. Only one in 4,000 gets shared more than 500 times.

The researchers analyzed 150,000 photos from Facebook that had been shared at least five times. The names of individuals and other identifiers were removed to protect privacy. A preliminary analysis showed that there was a 50-50 chance of shares doubling at any point during a cascade.

Next, the researchers looked for variables such as the rate and speed at which photos were shared, how many networks they were posted in, etc. to identify patterns.

The best indicator of a photos "viralbility" was speed of sharing. Using this variable, researchers could correctly predict cascades 78 percent of the time.

The next best predictive factor was the structure of the cascade — how items are spread among friend networks or interest groups. This proved to be 67 percent accurate in predicting doubling when used alone.

"Even if you have the best cat picture ever, it could work for your network, but not for my boring academic friends," Jure Leskovec, assistant professor of computer science at Stanford, told Stanford News. "You have to understand your network."

After looking at several predictive criteria, the scientists were able to predict doubling almost 80 percent of the time. As photos were shared more often, the accuracy rate went up to 88 percent.

The research team on the project included Justin Cheng (Stanford), Lada Adamic and P. Alex Dow (Facebook), and Jon Kleinberg (Cornell) in addition to Prof. Leskovec. Their findings will be presented at International World Wide Web Conference.

Do you see value to marketers in the findings of the viral events study? How important is it for marketers to get a handle on viralbility for social marketing? What do you think are the keys to a photo or video going viral?

Join the Discussion!

11 Comments on "What makes it go viral?"

Notify of

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Ryan Mathews

There doesn’t appear to be any value to the study — at least as described. You don’t, or at least you shouldn’t, need a study to tell you that what drives social network is a complex balance of content, speed and scale of network.

Think of it this way. If I post the coolest cat picture ever taken on Facebook, before anyone else on Earth has seen it, but I don’t have any “Friends,” it isn’t going anywhere. Think digital tree falling in the cyberforest with nobody around.

Or, if I’m a celebrity or at least a peer leader, whatever I post is going to get re-posted, almost regardless of content.

The secret of success in any network is to understand it from the inside out. This study appears (again, at least as represented) to be yet another example of the classic outside-in approach.

When it comes to social networking an ounce of studied active participation is worth more than a pound of “objective” research.

Max Goldberg

So, the more something gets shared, the more it will be shared. Is that science? The likelihood that a piece of content posted by a brand will go viral is infinitesimally small. Marketers should focus on providing fun, informative content to consumers. If it goes viral, great. If not, consumers who do see it will have gained valuable information and made good use of their time.

Mohamed Amer

The Stanford research speaks not to the characteristics of the content that goes viral but to the process of going viral. So that process involved photos posted on Facebook with variables that might predict a “doubling event” – these included rate and speed at which photos were shared and the structure of sharing across networks. So this suggests that marketers, who predominantly work on messaging and content, may need to pay more attention to the viral process and understanding their networks.

In the TED talk reference shared above, the keys for a video going viral were tapping into “tastemakers, creative participating communities, complete unexpectedness.” So the last point is pure serendipity and can’t be “planned,” but the other two require that marketers need to attract tastemakers to the brand’s social network as well as really knowing their social community.

While not as rare as hitting a grand slam in a world series game (18), or turning an unassisted triple play (only one in a world series game and 15 in major league baseball) it does require the marketer to go beyond messaging and a cute photo or video and hope for a dash of luck.

Tom Redd

First, viral is not that new nor is the science to predict viral. This was all started about 8 years ago and marketers have been on it since to figure out how to own more space within the human mind with their messages or images. So the formula for prediction has been refined..it makes news for a week and becomes another own-the-mind weapon for retailers.

But let’s take this in another direction. Why are people so bored with their lives that they are obsessed with things that go viral or are going viral? Watching YouTube, FB, etc. takes time. Some people are obsessed with looking for things like this on YouTube. Why is that? I wonder if technology has dumbed some people down to the degree that viral obsessions are addictive.

Who knows, but something is brewing here and I just cannot nail it down yet. Gut says that technology used in the wrong way is creating the lazy brain effect. I will work on a formula later to determine how lazy a persons brain is….

More soon.

Tom…Still has active brain….

gordon arnold

This is a great article describing the new marketing methods and means to get a message out there. What is also needed is remembering just how new this technology is and how fast it is evolving. That said, research with totally new perspective and divulgence should be encouraged and explored for potential for the next several decades.

Joan Treistman

Ever since Corona attributed success to word of mouth, marketers have been trying to make it happen for them. “Going viral” is another format for generating awareness and engaging prospects. It’s no surprise that searching for the winning formula is a hot topic today and for the future. Once the Holy Grail is found…well, I’m not so sure it will be found, so in the meantime, lots of studies and many articles about those studies. Experimenting will go on and every once in a while, “Eureka!”

Please note that we have been trying to find the secret to successful new product introductions. The failure rate is still above 80%. Isn’t it?

James Tenser
If there truly was a magic formula for “virality,” digital agencies all over the place would be exploiting it now. In some ways, those providers are better off if it remains at least a partial mystery. Introducing the concept of a “cascade” of sharing is a valuable contribution to understanding this phenomenon, and it’s useful to consider the mathematics of doubling and how that can cause a number to grow very rapidly. Remember the parable of the rice grains on the chessboard? Interesting content helps a lot, of course. Apparently even commercially produced videos can hit the jackpot, if they are creative, highly emotional or push the envelope in provocative ways. Amateur content (“my cat plays trombone,” or “scary bungee fail”) is a hit-and-miss proposition. But the crux of the viral effect may be sharing by a major influencer, often a celebrity whose existing social network is large and active enough to boost distribution overnight and set off the cascade. Then, if the trend gets noticed by other media (think late night TV, or the morning shows), a second wave can be triggered. It may be tempting for content producers with resources to flat out pay celebrities to prime the… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

There is definitely value here for marketers. One word that seems to be missing from the findings of the study is “unique.” As more and more videos and pictures get shared, it becomes increasingly more difficult to create unique imagery. I believe the most compelling aspect of messages going viral is to develop unique posts that people want to be a part of. Once you get your audience to participate in your own messaging, then you can start to envision true loyalty with your brand.

Doug Garnett

What’s missing from this research is anything we can use to develop content to pass virally. These findings tell us how we can see if something is going to go viral after it’s produced.

If this topic is of interest, I highly recommend this book from the Ehrenberg-Bass team. It has strong scientific underpinnings. One key to success with viral: paying to seed your viral content.

Anyway, a good read with excellent insight that leads to things we can use in creating viral content.

Lee Kent

Basically, as I understand this study, it is not telling me anything that I would not have figured out myself. They are discussing the process of going viral, but not what causes it. In order to try to make something go viral, which , yes, could be very beneficial, I need to know what content aspects have the greatest trigger impact on what networks or audiences.

Some aspects we know have a pretty good shot, regardless of network involve emotion, happy endings, patriotism, etc. But at the same time, those same aspects can do just the opposite. A study about that? Now that might interest me, and that’s just my 2 cents.

Shep Hyken

Every marketer wants their work to go viral. It’s a form of brand and name recognition. They key may have nothing to do at all with the product or the message. It has to do with the emotional engagement or the way someone feels; sad, sentimental, cute, happy, angry, funny, etc. Typically, a company that has a the goal of a video going viral is about brand and name recognition, as apposed to a sales pitch. That said, the YouTube that Dollar Shave Club put out is all about selling razor blades, and it is hilarious. Funny sells!


Take Our Instant Poll

How likely is it that marketers will get to the point where they will be able to determine if a photo or video will go viral before ever putting it online?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...