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Six rules that explain why things go viral

From the latest celebrity pictures, to heart-warming stories, business leaders speaking out against the decisions of politicians, or the cat or dog video of the moment on YouTube, the Tweets, pictures, videos and stories that trend, go viral, and capture attention on social media change constantly.

While no two trend for exactly the same reasons, drawing on both my experience with the BBC’s ‘Big Share’ show and our weekly monitoring of the biggest social media stories (summarised every Friday @PopulusPolls), it is possible to identify similarities in those that are shared widely.

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. The old idiom that a “picture is worth a thousand words” is surely more true in a world of 140 character limits.

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: Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement, The Dress, Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich moment, Joel Goodman’s photo of Manchester celebrating New Years Eve, and Kim Kardashian breaking the internet for Paper magazine.

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, charitable, 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. Social media is a public platform where we curate the persona we want to share with the world and so it isn’t surprising we try to present ourselves in the best possible way.

See: #JesuisCharlie, Twibbons and flag or cause filters for profile pictures, sharing Ice Bucket Challenge videos but forgetting to donate, and exercise and diet ‘humblebrags’.

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.

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: 106 year-old Virginia McLaurin meeting President Obama, 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. Good news spreads

“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.

Social media is a form of entertainment and, for many, something they look at first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and all points in between. First person accounts of the kindness of strangers, of people sharing their good fortune or luck, stereotypical encounters and experiences having unexpected outcomes, or light-hearted dismissal of authority 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: Boaty McBoatface, Mum overwhelmed by kindness of stranger on plane, Starbucks’ ‘pay it forward’ campaign, Papaw’s cookout with friends, family, strangers, and internet followers, the enduring popularity of Christmas adverts including this tear-jerker from German retail EDEKA

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 (and are increasingly transitioning to traditional print media).

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). Memes, more generally, remain popular and can be quickly adapted to address any topic.

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, Success Kid, the Croydon Advertiser taking lists offline and a step too far.

6. Too good to check

While much of what is shared on social media reflects first-hand experience and is true, 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. Much of the debate about ‘Fake News’ misses that such news only spreads because ordinary users are prepared to share it and either don’t know how to check its accuracy or care too little about doing so.

See: Inaccurate quotes used in tributes, 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.

Six rules that explain why things go viral

Social media changes quickly and it is impossible to predict exactly which posts, photos, Tweets and videos will go viral. But for brands looking to create viral content, corporates looking to understand why they aren’t gaining traction on social media, or researchers looking to understand the impact of a specific piece of content, these are the key characteristics to look for:

    • Pictures or it didn’t happen – powerful, attention grabbing images or videos

    • Virtue signalling – shows an attractive public persona

    • Be relatable – authentic and easy to understand

    • Good news spreads – brings happiness and joy

    • Format matters – easy to understand, easy to share

    • Too good to check – has truthiness, but perhaps not truth


Laurence Stellings

Laurence is a corporate reputation expert who is primarily focused on helping clients to develop and implement evidence-based strategies to best communicate their messages, manage their reputations and understand their key audiences.

Many well-established corporate clients such as Asda, Google, Sky, and RBS, as well as public bodies like the BBC and The Charity Commission and several political parties and campaigns have benefited from Laurence’s strategic counsel and expertise in a wide range of research techniques including stakeholder audits, key driver and segmentation analysis, political polling, and deliberative events.


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