Posted to Ben Finklea's blog on May 26th, 2010

What Does It Mean to “Go Viral”?

Social media and user-generated content were quite the surprise sensation last decade. Very few experts with their fingers to the wind felt its popularity and social impact coming from a distance. There is no argument that the influence of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are widespread. Just ask Greyson Chance, the sixth grader in Edmond, OK who just performed Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” on the piano at his Sixth Grade Festival. He has currently made over 20 million people forget who Justin Bieber is... Justin who?! Now that social media platforms have proven its effectiveness to businesses and brands in engaging with potential customers, growing brand awareness, and spreading marketing messages strategically across the expanse of the Internet, people with pencils behind their ears are trying to quantify its use. APIs, ROIs, and FYIs are being developed for businesses to justify investing in the most effective platforms, while others are still gun-shy on launching an extension of their traditional marketing initiatives to a digital format. If you have been reading or following my blog for the last year or so (THANK YOU!) then you’ve noticed I discuss social media optimization quite a bit. Although we do advise our clients on social media benefits and strategic usage, Volacci currently doesn’t offer professional Social Media Optimization (SMO) services. Volacci surely isn’t Mashable, but we do know a thing or two about social media. Join me after the jump for more on the conversation around the definition of “going viral”.

DEFINING VIRAL Just the other day, a client asked me if the content we created for him last month for link building purposes is “going viral” yet. I asked him to define exactly what he meant by “going viral”. It wasn’t a video, so we couldn’t count the number of views. We don’t run the client’s social media campaign, so we couldn’t measure retweets, likes, comments, or shares. And it’s not in our current link building publishing structure to post their content to Reddit, StumbleUpon, or Digg. That means we couldn’t leverage the content to the front page of Digg. Volacci doesn’t specialize in viral marketing - We do Drupal SEO. We can certainly track the traffic he is generating to the landing page, but that didn’t answer a more important question that stems from this. What does “going viral” exactly mean? 
The conversation led to a more detailed brainstorming of what exactly does it mean to “go viral” when quantifying the success of content. Where is the tipping point? Does it depend on the size of the client or their expectations? Does a small business who makes a short video consider it “viral” if it is shared in their niche community by more than ten people via Facebook or Twitter, but didn’t create any new leads? For larger clients, does it need to make news offline? This is a term used all too often for us not to be able to pin this down. It was becoming more apparent that the definition was flirting with subjectivity. A colleague of mine, Elizabeth Quintanilla, offered up this solid definition over a latte: “A piece of content that starts a conversation within a community across at least one social media platform.” had this to say: “Viral means becoming extremely popular in a very short amount of time. Often for something to be considered viral it needs to make its way into everyday non-internet life.” I think these are very good. But can we add an element of measurement to this definition? GOING VIRAL According to Wikipedia, one of the first instances of “going viral” was in 1996 with the “Dancing Baby” video. (Sorry, America’s Funniest Home Videos) Ron Lussier, an animator at LucasArts, began passing the video around work. It was so popular that a few isolated incidents of heads exploding were reported. Not really. But that was just how big the moment was for the Internet. Businesses and brands who are publishing online content through creative media channels – i.e. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. – are all trying to get “spread”. But what they are really trying to do is provide value to the reader with engaging content so that, in whatever way synapses fire, the reader is now convinced your product or service is their solution. There is an argument that larger the company, the more employees there are to redistribute the content to a larger audience, the better chances something can “go viral”. But it also depends on the size of the idea. If your content is absolutely, mind-blowingly phenomenal, you will ‘go viral’ no matter the size of your company. One thing is for sure, no matter the size of the company, the viral “idea” can still have the same impact. There are websites like that keep a pulse on what is going viral on the web by the day. But that just seems like its become “news” instead of “going viral”. But “going viral” isn’t just news, its something “newsworthy”. And newsworthy content doesn’t necessarily mean it will automatically “go viral”. If “going viral” is measured by how popular a piece of content gets offline, when it originates “online”, how far does the conversation have to extend to reach the tipping point? Soccer mom gossip? Local news? What is the tipping point for “going viral”? Please let me know what you believe in a comment below. Thank You For Reading! Help me go viral! Please repost, retweet, or redistribute to any of the social sites of your choice, and please subscribe to our RSS feed to receive daily fodder. For every RSS subscription Volacci gets, a kitten earns its whiskers. You like kittens, don’t you? Do the right thing, then. Subscribe. I am also are very interested in what you have to say in response to this blog post. As always I am very grateful for you, our reader, and greatly value your input. Please start a conversation with a comment below.