Going viral: Pipe dream or possibility?

Home / Blog / Going viral: Pipe dream or possibility?

You dream of your social media post going viral. But is that a pipe dream or a dream that may one day become a reality? The former option is more likely.

“Organic virality is a pipe dream for most marketers,” says Chad Pollitt, co-founder of Relevance, in a post on Social Media Today. “After publishing over 1,000 articles in my career I’ve never had anything go “viral.”

Sophie Elizabeth Smith of Buzzsumo agrees. “Viral posts are outliers. They are not the norm; they are exceptional. We’ve analyzed over 500 million articles to see what the typical share count is. Most content gets very few shares. The average is 8 shares,” she wrote in a post on the Digital Marketing Institute’s blog.

“This is true even of the very largest viral sites. Their top posts will significantly outperform the rest of their content. Even for BuzzFeed and their competitors, their viral posts are outliers,” she added.

And since a large proportion of posts that are retweeted are those written by traditional media, it is not likely average tweeters will find one of their posts going viral. Social media, it seems, functions more as a filter or loudspeaker for news from traditional media, rather than as an alternate news source, according to the authors of “Trends in Social Media: Persistence and Decay.

Even if a post does spread rapidly by being frequently shared with many individuals, its popularity will not last. In “Trends,” the authors note that few trending topics last more than 20 to 40 minutes. Those that do last longer cover topics that resonate with people and derive from stories that traditional media cover and that many users retweet.

The longevity of trending topics

It’s those retweets that determine trends. The greater the number of authors who tweet or retweet about a subject, the greater its lifespan, the “Trends” article notes. “Thirty-one percent of the tweets of trending topics are retweets,” its authors say. The more retweets, the longer the trend lasts.

Go to your own Twitter page for proof and you’ll see that trending topics change frequently within a 24-hour period and the links that show up are often posted by traditional media.

Topics start and stop trending, then trend again – possibly because of different time zones. And there are always many topics competing for attention among Twitter’s 321 million users.

Tips for going viral

None of this means that you can’t try for viral. And social media gurus aren’t shy about sharing tips. Here are some from Jeff Bulas:

  • Write a great headline
  • Keep it short
  • Keep it appropriate
  • Use lists and images
  • Allow comments
  • Make it interactive
  • Take a human angle
  • Make it genuine

Also consider how using – or not using – hashtags can affect your retweets, which are crucial for virality.

Tips for posting what people want to share

In her post on the Digital Marketing Institute’s blog, Smith said that BuzzSumo analyzed 100 million posts in 2014 to look for patterns in the most shared content. According to her, the most shared content had either some or all of these features:

  • Invoked awe, laughter or amusement
  • Appealed to people’s narcissistic side – made them look smart for sharing
  • Were lists or infographics
  • Were from trusted sources

She also shares features of shared content identified by other surveys.

Reality check

A look at posts that actually made it beyond pipe dream to reality by going viral may also help us understand what a viral post actually looks like.

Exploring them can also serve as a reality check that viral posts are rare. And if your bosses doubt you when you tell them this, you can encourage them to do their own reality check by showing them this blog post.