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Earnest Pettie, Online

Editor of Pophangover.com, Damn You, Autocorrect!, and the whole Pophangover Network

There Is No Such Thing As Viral Content

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There Is No Such Thing As Viral Content

There’s no such thing as viral content. What exists are viral ideas that content is connected to.

Let’s start with making a distinction between popular content and viral content. Popular content isn’t always viral, and viral content isn’t necessarily popular. When the two groups overlap, however, you have an unparalleled hit on your hands. Popular videos can be identified by one metric, video views. A video that has accumulated millions of views is one that you can usually assume to be popular, but you can’t assume that it is viral. For example, a large television audience can be parlayed into eyeballs and clicks for a video online. That doesn’t make it viral. Viral videos are identified by their spread. These videos are spread from person to person by email, blog posts, forum posts, social networks and even copying the content.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s put the popular video category to the side and discuss just viral content. I’ve been working in web video since 2008. In 2008, the web went crazy for viral videos, and every company seemed to want to create its own “viral” ad. They did this by attempting to ape the style of user-generated video (often poorly) by using shaky camerawork and actors who tried their best to just act normal. The ads didn’t work (and continue not to work) because those companies didn’t realize that there is no such thing as content that is inherently viral. There just isn’t.

I started programming content at Stupidvideos.com in 2008; in 2009, I began editing NothingToxic.com, and in 2010, I began editing Break.com, what I considered to be the big show. At each of those sites, I grew to know the kind of content the audience wanted, which videos would be popular on those sites. I always maintained an eye outward, wanting my videos to leap beyond the site and achieve “virality.” At each of those sites, I developed an instinct for how to position the video I was posting to help them be as popular as possible. I wasn’t perfect, but I felt like I was exceeding effective. All the while, I would remain mystified when videos I thought were ripe to go viral, wouldn’t. It was because I was looking at the content as self-evidently good. I was making the same mistake those ad companies were making. I had not yet made the connection between what I was doing to sell content to the audiences on my sites and the wider web.

I had to learn that there is no viral content; there are only viral ideas. For years, I had attached a site-specific perspective to the videos I posted. My titles and descriptions, even when they were just punchlines, were attached to a point-of-view I’d created for Break, NothingToxic, and Stupidvideos. I would rarely just use a straightforward description and title because they would not tell a person why they should watch a video I’d posted. How does this apply to the broader idea of virality? Content spreads virally based on points-of-view.

Take, for example, the recently-retired bus monitor, Karen Klein. There were two viral campaigns that revolved around Karen. The first flight was the original video of Karen being bullied. That video received over 8 million views, and was spread with the idea “Kids these days are awful. Look at how they behave toward elders!” What followed was a fundraiser campaign on Indiegogo designed to get Karen Klein a vacation. The idea was simple. “Let’s get Karen a vacation!” The goal was to get justice for a victim, and the fundraiser raised 700,000 dollars. There are videos of greater atrocities being created everyday that no one ever sees because those videos have not yet been wed to a viral idea. To create viral success, you have to marry content to an idea.

I wish that I could say that this notion occurred to me after careful analysis of viral trends from throughout my career. Instead, it was the result of an aha moment. We had been using a real-time analytics program called Chartbeat to determine what we could do at Break to react in real-time to trends happening on our site. I noticed one day that an ancient video was running rampant through Facebook. After doing a bit of research to figure out what was happening, I observed that this video of a father smashing his daughter’s cell phone because of texts she’d received was being spread through what appeared to be a religious, conservative group of black people. The posts all seemed to mention that that was what parents needed to be doing. That was when the lightbulb went off in my head, and I began reevaluating the posts I’d done over the years. The more I thought about it, the more I saw that our biggest videos had been attached to bigger ideas that transcended the videos.

Thus far, I’ve been discussing user-generated content, which has an easier time going viral than creative content. I think creative content (short films, sketches, etc...) has a more difficult time going viral because it’s more difficult to attach that content to a broader idea that people pass around. That’s because those creative pieces of content tend to be full of their own ideas. I think the company I work for has sometimes been stymied by this problem with its own creative content. Occasionally, we’ve created content that is interesting, funny, and/or looks great and wondered why it didn’t go viral, and it’s frequently because there isn’t a broader idea that it can be attached to. Take, for example, the video “Kid’s Halloween Rap: Getting Sugar High.” The video looks great and is amusing, but what is the broader idea on which the video could float? One of our recent series, Honest Trailers, works better as viral content because there is an idea behind each video, “that movie was stupid-- can you believe they got away with that?” that people can repeat and are willing to share.

Let’s assume that what I’m saying is true. How do you apply that to content you’re publishing online? Well, the worst thing you can do with a piece of content is simply say “Here is this thing that has been created. Enjoy.” That works fine when you have a built-in audience for something, but it will not be an effective way to encourage the spread of that content. Instead, figure out whether there is a broader idea to which you can attach the content, one that people can either identify or argue with. Once you have that, you can tailor your messaging in your content’s description and social sharing to that idea. Doing that doesn’t mean that your content will be viral, but I believe it lowers the barrier to the virality people seek.