The #1 Reason Content Goes Viral

By Anna Seacat

A Familiar Model for Online Content

In a recent graduate level social media marketing course at Southern New Hampshire University , my classmates and I were asked to choose one out of twenty-five viral videos (those earning one million views or more) to analyze along the lines of its virality.  I chose to analyze the “Science of Watchmen” video, because it had similar qualities to most of videos that I post to YouTube. The familiar qualities I try to incorporate include helpful content, lengthy content, and keyword-rich descriptions.

Three Key Ingredients for Sharable Content

From what I have learned in previous client work and from other digital marketing courses, there are three key ingredients that most popular online content contain.
  1. Content that offers helpful information, “Practical Value,” tends to be shared more (Berger, 2013, p. 23-25).
  2. Content that is longer than the average piece of content tends to be shared more (Kagan, 2014, Long Form Content Gets More Social Shares section; Berger & Milkman, 2012, p. 198).
  3. Content with keyword-rich descriptions tend to perform better in terms of SEO, making the content more easily found, thus having more potential for an audience to consume and share (Smith, 2013, Utilize the Description Field section).
These three elements, practical value, long content, and keyword-rich descriptions were all present in the “Science of Watchmen” video and surely contributed to its popularity.

ALT = "Recipe for Viral Content, Why do things go viral, viral content marketing, reasons why videos go viral"

What is the main reason why marketing content and videos go viral? This article suggests that one factor contributes to the virality of content. | Anna Seacat

More Ingredients for Share-Worthy Content?

Beyond what I have outlined above, the authors of “Content Rules” recommended that marketers should incorporate three additional elements into marketing content, in order to increase the potential to be viewed and shared (Handley, A. & Chapman, C.C., 2012, p. 199):
  1. Feature a real story
  2. Feature real people
  3. Include outside sources
These elements are all applicable to the “Science of Watchman.” Even though the actual movie was science-fiction, the professor and his story were very real. Furthermore, the professor’s YouTube video served to add scientific credibility to the movie. In these ways he served as the  real story and the outside source.

The Viral Cake Flopped. What Ingredient Did We Miss?

After using these texts to conduct a brief analysis of the reasons behind the popularity of the content in question, I have come to a problem. Remember when I mentioned the “Science of Watchmen” reminded me of my own YouTube videos? My videos also incorporate practical value, long content, and keyword rich descriptions. Most of them tell a story, feature real people, and rely on outside sources. Yet, my videos haven’t earned anywhere near the number of views that the “Science of Watchmen” video has. Why is this? The answer to this question is rather simple, but largely overlooked by marketers when designing content intended to go viral.

The Missing Ingredient: Target Market Analysis

Unlike my online content, which is designed to target a very specific and small segment of the population, the “Science of Watchmen” video provided content that multiple, large networked segments of the population are passionate about and/or attracted to:
  1. A connected academic community — those who are networked with or follow the featured professor
  2. A large university fan base — those who are excited about the fact that their school or alma mater contributed to a major motion picture
  3. The enormous comic book community — those who are passionate about comic-book related content
  4.  The online community of science-fiction-movie-lovers – those online communities who anticipate, discuss, and research upcoming science fiction films
Not only are each of these groups huge in number, but they are easily defined and are probably likely to consume dense online content.  David Meerman Scott confirmed this element of virality in “The New Rules of Marketing & PR,” wherein he described how the sale of a vintage poster went viral because of its appeal to multiple large networks of online communities (2013, p. 339-342). Although I found Scott’s description of the reason behind this viral piece of content to be laborious, his example did accurately illustrate that the overwhelming popularity of digital content has to do with its ability to attract several, easily definable groups of networked communities.

ALT = "#1 Reason Videos go Viral, Why do videos go viral, how to make a video go viral"

What is the number one reason why marketing content and video goes viral? Can the viral potential be narrowed down to just one factor? | Anna Seacat

The #1 Reason Marketing Content Goes Viral

I would like to propose that the reason described above is not only the difference between my videos on YouTube and the “Science of Watchmen” video, but that it is a common element among ALL viral pieces of content.  If my hypothesis is true – that all viral content successfully attracts multiple large groups of networked individuals —  marketers should seriously consider the following:

If your marketing content is not designed to appeal to multiple large groups of networked individuals, who can be easily defined by their existence in the group, your content will NOT go viral.

In other words, it’s not good enough to appeal to a “wide audience.” Viral online content does not appeal to a large group of individuals, rather it attracts multiple large groups of networked individuals, who identify with the large group.
If this logic is true, the first step to designing for virality should be to conduct market research and identify multiple large online communities.  Next, the content should be designed to appeal in a major way to each of the identified communities.
Berger, J. (2013). Contagious: Why Things Catch On. New York, NY: Simon and
Berger, J. & Milkman, K. L. (2012). What Makes Online Content Viral? Journal of
Marketing Research, 49(2), 192-205.
Chapman, C.C. & Handley, A. (2012). Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs,
Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) that Engage Customers and
Ignite Your Business. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Kagan, N. (2014). Why Content Goes Viral: What Analyzing 100 Million Articles Taught
Us. OKDork. Retrieved from
Smith, C. S. (2013). 10 Tips for Using YouTube to Kill at Local SEO. Search Engine
Land. Retrieved from

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Ethan McCarty

Digital strategy | Social business | People-centric biznology

Alana Harris Photography

some of my favorite photos and their stories


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