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The seven secrets of a viral hit

From the latest ‘shocking video’, to new ‘heart-warming stories’, or celebrities, business leaders, and politicians ‘speaking out’, the stories that trend, go viral, and capture attention on social media change constantly.

About once a month, I join the 5 Live Afternoon Edition Big Share panel to discuss the week’s biggest trending and viral stories. While no two viral social media stories trend for exactly the same reasons, those that are shared widely have similarities:


1. Pictures or it didn’t happen

Some of the biggest social media networks, like Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube are based entirely around images and video, while others like Twitter and Facebook have made it ever easier to share videos and photos. With high quality cameras built in to every smartphone, it is no surprise that pictures and videos often dominate online and on social media.

Even before social networks, early internet forums regularly demanded photographic evidence of outlandish claims or stories with the common retort “pictures or it didn’t happen”. Social media works in the same way: stories with pictures and videos are more likely to be shared, liked, retweeted and go viral.

See: Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich moment, the McKinney Texas police / pool party video, and Facebook Live’s (current) most watched video of an American mum wearing a Chewbacca mask.

2. Virtue signalling

In April 2015, the author James Bartholomew coined the phrase ‘Virtue Signalling’ in a Spectator article. Applicable both on social media and elsewhere, virtue signalling online involves liking, sharing, or making comments to show that a user holds virtuous, desirable, or progressive views. What makes virtue signalling on social media so prevalent is the split-second time it takes to like, retweet, share, or comment on a story with an ethical, political, or other desirable dimension. While some of those doing so will also take further action to further the cause they believe in, for many social media offers an easy way to associate themselves with a cause, with little real commitment or practical involvement.

See: #JesuisCharlie, sharing others’ Ice Bucket Challenge but not participating or donating, Twibbons and flag or cause filters for profile pictures.

3. Be relatable

Social media is often hailed for being a democratic form of media, for giving normal people – outside of the worlds of politics, business, the established media, or celebrity – the chance to have a say and share their experiences.

Many social media viral hits are those that show ordinary people doing extraordinary things; demonstrating bravery, having uncommon luck, talking candidly about personal challenges, or meeting celebrity or sporting heroes. Those trending stories that involve celebrities or corporates often show glimpses of going ‘behind-the-scenes’ of the usually polished image presented, or show an unexpected side. Some of these stories really are candid, while others are carefully manufactured and choreographed to promote products or brands.

Viral hits, then, are often stories that seem relatable – showing people like us doing something unexpected, or offering a candid insight into a well-known name or brand.

See: Dan Majesky writing about his wife’s miscarriage, McDonald’s going behind the scenes at a food photo shoot, Meghan Trainor condemning her own video for Photoshop editing.

4. It doesn’t have to bleed to lead

“If it bleeds it leads” is, sometimes unfairly, characterised as the approach of TV and print media – prioritising ‘bad’ news over the good. While bad news, like examples of discrimination or poor customer service, does trend, good news stories regularly go viral.

First person accounts of the kindness of strangers, of people sharing their good fortune or luck, or stereotypical encounters and experiences having unexpected outcomes are all classic examples of stories that do well on social media. With so many people spending so much time on social media, it shouldn’t be surprising that happy or ‘uplifting’ stories can easily trend.

See: Mum overwhelmed by kindness of stranger on plane, Starbucks’ ‘pay it forward’ campaign, and Papaw’s cookout with friends, family, strangers, and internet followers.

5. Format matters

While it’s possible to share content in virtually any form or any length, some formats do particularly well on social media. Clickbait headlines that promise hidden knowledge, to reveal secrets, or shock readers are much-criticised, but remain successful in driving traffic and encouraging sharing. Similarly, listicles that present top tens or countdowns with accompanying pictures, remain both popular and a successful format.

Animated gifs are ubiquitous on social media, helped by how easy they are to make and the small file size that makes them ideal for mobiles and tablets. The inspirational photo and quote genre is another popular format (although a frequent target too for deliberate or inadvertent fabrications).

See: The title and list format of this blog, websites like the indy100 and Onion spin-off ClickHole, the inspirational quotes and picture-and-quote genre.

6. Not being true isn’t a barrier to success

While much of what is shared on social media reflects first-hand experience and is true, deliberately false, incomplete, or misleading stories can also easily trend or go viral. Many can’t resist stories that seem ‘too good to be true’ and share, retweet, and like posts with dubious or little truth. Unlike conventional media outlets, which typically second-source or fact check claims, there are few if any such filters on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” is both a cliché and itself often erroneously attributed, but social media has only accelerated the speed with which untruth spreads.

See: The old photos and stories recirculated after the Paris attacks, periodic waves of Facebook users posting pseudo-legal notices to protect their content, and many of Britain First’s images, videos and stories shared with their 1.3 million Facebook fans.

7. Finally, being a viral hit doesn’t guarantee offline success

While social media often reflects events in the ‘real-world’, success on social media doesn’t always translate to success offline. Countless stories have trended online or captured the imagination of a small number of active social media users without ever having a wider impact. From trying to organise boycotts of alleged corporate tax avoiders, to committing to welcoming refugees to the UK, to petitions to Parliament, collecting retweets, likes, and shares doesn’t always mean real success.

See: #CameronMustGo repeatedly trending on Twitter just months before David Cameron increased the size of his majority, Milifandom, and #NeverTrump

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