Why some content goes viral (and some doesn’t)

Viral content is a magic word in content marketing. It indicates that something on the internet, for instance an article or a video, gets picked up and spread around, much like a virus – for instance the catchy ‘Gangnam Style’ by Korean artist Psy, which is now known all around the world by people from all age groups.

Creating a viral campaign for a brand is basically like hitting a marketing jackpot. Everyone will be talking about you, your brand name will be seen by thousands (and possibly millions) of people. Creating viral content, however, is not an easy task. It seems impossible to predict if content will go viral or not. But is it really that difficult?

In 2012 researchers Jonah Berger and Catherine Milkman published a study in the Journal of Marketing Research. They discovered content characteristics that make it easier to determine the likeliness of content going viral.

For three months, they screened all articles on the home page of The New York Times. They then looked if the articles appeared in the top 20 of most emailed articles. Characteristics of the articles, such as place on the website, author, length, and usefulness of the information were also logged. Moreover, they examined the amount of emotions evoked by the article: did it make the reader sad, fearful or surprised?

The conclusion of their research was fascinating. Positive articles were shared more often. So were articles that had a prominent position on the website. And finally: articles of female authors were shared more often than those of their male colleagues.

So how do we use these study results for our marketing? In any case, it is important to create content that provokes strong positive emotions. Although digital content and articles in The New York Times aren’t completely the same, it’s not hard to see that recent content that has gone viral has had positive, energising qualities: think Dove, Psy or Harlem Shake. A final lesson, and not an unimportant one: get female marketers on your team!

Interested in reading the entire study? You can find it here.
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