How Posts Go Viral On Social Media


So, your mission is to spread an infection, eh?

There are 3 things you need to know:

  1. Stickiness – how long something sticks with someone
  2. Contagiousness – how easily people share things with others
  3. Medium – how many people there are, and how closely they are packed together

There is no simple answer to how virality works. We can dissect it on hindsight:”Oh yeah, Gangnam Style went viral because it was unexpected, quirky, a clash of Korean culture and dance music, had the funny elevator guy…”. Prediction is much harder. f we could predict in advance what would go viral, we’d make everything viral. So even if you play all your cards “right”, you might not get the amazing results you were hoping for. That’s just the nature of the game.

It’s helpful to use regular viruses and epidemics as a metaphor. “Viral”, after all, comes from the word virus, and making something go viral is remarkably similar to spreading an infection.

There are 4 main factors that influence how things go viral:

1: The stickiness of the virus.

AIDS is sticky. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it for life. The common cold is not very sticky. You get it, but then it goes away after a while.

Urban legends are sticky. You know that story about the guy who woke up in a bathtub with his kidney missing? Yep. Do you remember the If you want to make something more sticky, you’ll need to deliberately study what sticks and what doesn’t.

Here we’re not talking about a virus remaining in a biological system, but an idea remaining in memory or consciousness. I suggest reading “Made To Stick” by Dan and Chip Heath. Here’s a visual summary, and here are 90+ examples of Made To Stick Principles in action.

2: The contagiousness of the virus.

The common cold is more contagious than AIDS. You could be going about your day, maybe having some ice cream, and BOOM the guy next to you sneezes in your face. You never saw it coming. AIDS on the other hand, requires a bit more of a commitment from you.

If you want to make something more contagious, you have to engineer it such that it’s easy to spread. Check out our visual summary of Jonah Berger’s Contagious. We’re also currently working on a post series.

3: The medium through which the virus is spread.

The common cold spreads much faster during the holiday season, when lots of people are gathered together. AIDs spread faster in communities where people have lots of unprotected sex or share needles.

In social media, this means knowing where the right people are clustered in the right way. You’ll need to find the right forums, the right clusters and gatherings. This requires lots of deliberate attention, too.

This is one of the important ideas Seth Godin talks about in Unleashing The Ideavirus.

4: The influence of the people doing the spreading.

Networks are unequal. If you wanted to spread something through the above network, your best bet is to hit the blue nodes, because they have disproportionately more links than others- which makes them more “central” to the network.

Seth Godin describes these influencers as Sneezers, and he breaks them down into Promiscuous Sneezers and Powerful Sneezers.

You can’t simply buy influence.

“The paradox of the powerful sneezer is that he can’t be bought. Every time a powerful sneezer accepts a bribe in exchange for spreading a virus, his power decreases.” – Seth Godin

Very often, the “blue” people develop the influence they have because they have a history of being indepedent, reliable, truthful. They have a history of sharing quality information. They have standards and tastes, and you have to meet those standards if you want them to share your stuff. Better yet, impress and delight them altogether. Don’t simply offer to pay them for a Tweet or Share. That just inflates your numbers and looks good.

The only real way to create something viral is to create something that’s so damn good, so interesting, so compelling that powerful sneezers in social networks feel obliged to share it. It has to create social value for the people sharing it. The first few people who shared Gangnam Style did it because it was funny, ridiculous, interesting, amusing, catchy.

You can’t make something viral just by dipping it in Viral Sauce.

There’s no such thing. You have to go deep into the DNA of the virus that you want to spread, and make sure that it’s a right fit for the people you want to spread it to, and the medium it’s going to be spreading in. Even then, it might still fail if the conditions aren’t perfect (and you have little to no control over these conditions).

Sounds tough? That’s because it is. All you can do is keep creating content, do lots of trial and error (mostly error), and enjoy the occasional superstar success.

Above all, focus on building an amazing audience that trusts, respects and admires you. Each new crazy fan you get makes it more likely that something you did will go “truly viral”. Don’t hope to win the lottery- that’s not a winning strategy. Work deliberately to make something insanely great. Then push it as hard as you can, deliberately and respectfully.

Good luck!


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