3 elements that make things ‘go viral.’

How do you make things, uh, catchy?

How do you make things, uh, catchy?

We live in a very viral age. From antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” to cyber attacks, there’s rarely a day that goes by when some sort of biological or digital virus isn’t overtaking something, somewhere.

I find it amusing that the term “virus” can mean everything from an abundant blessing to the most wretched of curses—depending on your frame of reference. It’s easy to understand, when IT types hear someone utter “virus,” that their pocket protectors collectively drop to the floor. But flip to marketers, musicians, artists and others… and they BEG the cyber gods for something of theirs to “go viral.”

It’s hard to think of any other concept or term that exhilarates and terrifies us at the same time. So many of us dream about it. Others recoil at just the thought.

Who was “patient zero” in this whole viral thing? According to Wired editor Bill Wasik, employees at Hot Mail coined the term “going viral” in the late 1990s, when word of their service spread electronically across the Internet like an uncovered sneeze. Gesundheit. And I digress.

The idea of something spreading in our culture is far from new. In previous decades and centuries, all the hits, trends and fads simply spread through other channels… like TV, print, radio and movies—when old-timers “chatted at the water cooler.” The difference now is the speed and truly global nature of today’s viruses. (Both digital and biological, I’m afraid.)

More than 100 million viewers tuned in to watch the finale of M*A*S*H… a number that hasn’t been matched in television since. Yet Psy’s Gangnam Style YouTube video clocks in at 1,406,954,476 (in the second I wrote this). You do the math. My head hurts.

Virality has also become a concrete measure of success or failure. We know to the click, view, retweet or share exactly how something we’ve created has done. Bloggers are judged by how many people read their posts. People’s cultural influence is measured in Twitter followers. We make judgments on people, based on how many friends or LinkedIn connections they have.

We all want more, all the time.

But, take away the technological miracles for a moment, grab your microscope and take a good, deep look at the cultural phenomenon of going viral. It’s really just about human nature.

Think about the things you share online… whether it’s with friends or colleagues. Nearly all of us pass along stuff to make others laugh; to share an insight; to create a connection. If it’s sincere, people usually respond.

I think Alex Bogusky put it best. Alex was one of the founding partners of Crispin Porter—one of the most successful ad agencies in recent decades. Alex said that viral things tend to have one (or more) of three traits. They are…

  • Entertaining – The hilarious Old Spice commercials. The ubiquitous Tardar Sauce (a.k.a. the grumpy cat). Screaming goats edited into a Taylor Swift song. They make us laugh, cry, and forget our stress for a little while. You like it, and you want to pass the feeling on and make others feel good, too.
  • Beautiful – How many emails have you gotten with PowerPoint presentations of gorgeous ice sculptures… breathtaking views of our planet… or amazingly designed homes? We’re all busy as hell, yet we click through slide by slide, or share it on Facebook, or write a status about it on LinkedIn. Again, you were moved, and you want to move others.
  • Useful –Think of how the TED talk videos have opened the eyes of millions to new ideas. Or how YouTube teaches young musicians how to play something in minutes that used to take weeks to figure out. We all have our interests and passions, we all want to grow, and we know others do, too. So when we come across something useful or beneficial, we pass it along.

It’s also important to remember the math behind the viral phenomenon. An adorable cat video doesn’t just magically appear to a gazillion people all at once. Rather, it starts with individuals sharing it in their little networks, then those people sharing it with theirs, and on and on. Just like biological viruses that eventually turn into a pandemic, digital viruses spread among smaller groups first, then transmit exponentially to the masses.

Why do things go viral? The easy answer is because something is entertaining, beautiful or useful. But there’s a deeper reason, too… one that transcends all media, cultures and fads. Things go viral, because they’re a direct result of the relationships we all enjoy. They’re just another way for us to connect with each other. And that’s exactly the sort of thing we don’t mind catching again and again.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group.

  • This design is steller! You definitely know how to keep a reader amused.
    Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Fantastic job.
    I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented
    it. Too cool!

    17 March, 2014 at 3:18 am
  • Right now it sounds like Expression Engine is
    the best blogging platform out there right now.
    (from what I’ve read) Is that what you are using on your blog?

    20 March, 2014 at 10:24 am
  • Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning this
    post plus the rest of the site is really good.

    21 March, 2014 at 12:36 pm
  • I’m curious to find out what blog platform you’re utilizing?
    I’m experiencing some minor security problems with my latest blog and I’d like to find something more safe.
    Do you have any solutions?

    25 March, 2014 at 5:53 am
  • Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but
    other than that, this is great blog. An excellent read.

    I’ll certainly be back.

    25 March, 2014 at 10:31 am
  • Pretty great post. I just stumbled upon your blog and
    wanted to mention that I have truly enjoyed surfing around
    your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing on your rss feed and I am hoping you
    write once more soon!

    27 March, 2014 at 5:24 am
  • I love reading through an article that can make people think.
    Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!

    5 April, 2014 at 3:25 pm
  • This is very fascinating, You’re an excessively professional blogger.
    I’ve joined your feed and sit up for searching for extra of your magnificent post.
    Also, I’ve shared your web site in my social networks

    5 April, 2014 at 8:23 pm
  • Great blog you have here.. It’s difficult to find quality writing like yours these days.

    I honestly appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!

    10 April, 2014 at 2:10 am
  • Hello, just wanted to tell you, I enjoyed this post.
    It was practical. Keep on posting!

    23 April, 2014 at 3:48 am
  • I’d like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in penning this site.
    I really hope to see the same high-grade blog posts by you in
    the future as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has motivated me
    to get my own website now 😉

    29 April, 2014 at 9:14 pm
  • I have been checking out a few of your articles and i can claim pretty clever stuff. I will surely bookmark your blog.

    24 July, 2016 at 12:16 pm
  • see this

    Incredible points. Solid arguments. Keep up the amazing work.|

    12 December, 2016 at 6:38 pm

Post a Comment