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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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