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Going Viral

photo credit: Mayo Clinic via photopin cc

photo credit: Mayo Clinic via photopin cc

Going Viral

Statistics tell us that out of Internet users, 99 percent have seen a video of somebody, or lots of somebodies, pouring ice water over their heads to support medical research. While absurd, it is in fact true.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, an effort to promote awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), went viral in July-August 2014. The Ice Bucket Challenge has been one of the most wildly successful philanthropic campaigns in Internet history. Since its inception in June, 2014 the campaign has raised over 100 million dollars for research and boasts that “everyone from Ethel Kennedy to Justin Timberlake” have participated.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is a prime example of a viral campaign. But why did it compel millions of people to participate, and not only participate but also give their money to a charitable cause?

To give a tiny background, the challenge essentially encourages nominated participants to be filmed as they pour a bucket of ice water over their heads and then egg their friends on to do the same. A common stipulation is that nominated participants have 24 hours to dump freezing water on their heads or forfeit by way of a charitable donation for ALS research.

This viral video campaign garnered massive amounts of attention and donations, and we’re here to track some of the conditions that created this perfect viral storm.

  1. Emotion – Viral content can be almost anything – a stunt, a wildly absurd music video, a cat video – but there’s a fundamental rule for viral content: it must provoke emotion. Rosana E. Guadagno, a social psychologist, recently did a study comparing how often videos were shared. She found that emotional videos were shared most often, and videos ranked as funny or cute were shared most compared to those that evoked negative emotions like sadness or anger.
  1. Irony – Audiences respond to videos that are surprising and sometimes a little strange. In a study of the top viral videos of 2011, researchers found that 90% of videos contained what they called “irony.” They defined irony as breaking social norms, and it often appeared in videos that also incorporated surprise. People like content when it’s different and exciting, and by offering something funny or unexpected you up the likelihood of people sharing your content with followers and friends.
  1. Quick Delivery – They get straight to the point. The same study cited above found that 75% of viral videos in 2011 had three words or less in the title, and the majority of viral content was under three minutes. Internet attention spans are short; content that doesn’t waste time wins.
  1. Participation – Another facet of viral campaigns, like the Ice Bucket Challenge, is that they encourage the audience to participate and become part of the movement themselves through creating their own content. Viral content encourages parodies, comments, or original videos as a way to get an audience invested in the campaign.

Viral campaigns are relevant in today’s interconnected world because social sharing has enabled information to reach vast audiences. If you key into that perfect viral storm the friends of friends of friends of people who follow you might just stumble upon your organization on their feed and become your most avid supporter. Viral content is a tool to reach out to a broader audience that would never connect with you in any other way.

If you can tell a story that matters and creates an emotional response, get people involved in an easy and social way, and make a simple ask, you can create a viral campaign. We all seek validation, after all.

If you want to further explore going viral, watch these TED talks about viral content:

Written by Marissa Higdon

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