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The Maddening Magic of Going Viral

Brands dream of having a name or concept rise to the prominence of the #MeToo movement—the Silence Breakers who made it famous even snagged the 2017 Person of the Year cover of Time magazine. In the past, there has been a giant shrug in answer to the question: What makes something go viral?

Generating word-of-mouth excitement has been the subject of scrutiny since before Aristotle. But, now that Dollar Shave Club has shown fortunes can be made (or lost) on the ability to create a culture-shifting meme on social media, people are getting serious about the elusive science of going viral.

Wide-ranging, independent research finds content that shocks or inspires is more likely to be shared on social media and more likely to gain viral traction. But, expert Jonah Berger argues, it helps to add a sense of social currency—something that makes people feel they’re in the know, as well as smart.

Timing is important, as is having the right people to push the message; the MeToo movement was actually started before hashtags, in 1997.

Celebrity boost is nothing new. Ignaz Semmelweis tried to introduce widespread hand-washing for medical workers attending births in 1847, but his toxic personality prevented him from achieving the credibility necessary to push the idea. It took scientific rock-stars like Louis Pasteur to make the idea popular, decades later.

Technology has a role to play, of course—it’s hard to imagine ideas spreading the way they do now before the birth of the hashtag.

Meanwhile, six physicists and a communications expert are studying the tell-tale patterns in social media activity that can predict something going viral, but their research is so far inconclusive.

Perhaps Facebook’s best advice is to watch closely events likely to escalate (like the Weinstein scandal). As with any outgoing message, make sure it’s in line with brand purpose, values, and audience interests. Then, make it easy for consumers to get excited about sharing your content, with bite-sized tidbits and catchy hashtags. Oh, and don’t let your server crash under increased traffic demand!

Brands can’t afford to conclude that there’s no logic to going viral. What are you doing to be ready to jump on an opportunity?


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