What Does “Viral” Mean?

What do we mean when we say that something on the internet is “viral?” I ask because the word shows up in such different contexts that people don’t always seem to be talking about the same thing. If you’re in the communications world (political or otherwise), these differences in understanding can really matter — particularly in conversation with a client. So, what IS “viral,” and what does it have to do with a Mentos-and-coke video on YouTube?

More about this video.

Here’s the framework I use: for me, “viral” is almost anthropological, describing a pattern of behavior — the spreading of information from one person to another through their social connections. “Viral content” is the information that spreads this way, via electronically amplified word of mouth running through people’s online and offline relationships. “Viral marketing” attempts to take advantage of the mechanism of viral spread for commercial, entertainment or political ends, usually aiming for “viral takeoff,” which in turn leads to exponential traffic growth, mass popularity and big paychecks for all.

But I’m realizing that when the word “viral” gets tossed around casually, it often turns out to mean something related but significantly different. For instance, when Attack of the Show features “viral” videos, what they’re really saying is that these are pieces that are popular on YouTube and which may or may not have benefited from much viral spread at all. In this case, “viral” means “widely seen.”

That’s why if a client says, “we want to create a viral video,” my first question will usually be, “what do you mean by viral?” If it turns out that their goal is to create compelling content that people in their targeted audience will WANT to send to their friends and family, then we’re off in the right direction. But if they really mean, “we want to create a video that will become immensely popular and spread like wildfire and everyone will see it,” we’ve got some ‘splaining to do.

Because nobody can really predict whether or not a given piece of video or writing will take off like crazy, and there are a lot of people trying to make it happen. It’s a question of timing, content and opportunity that’s inherently chaotic, and hundreds or thousands of viral attempts fail for every one that gets seen by enough people to hit the bigtime — say, to get promoted to the top of YouTube or picked up on tv. It’s so remote a possibility that it may not even be worth aiming for, other than for fun.

But, good content CAN spread widely to targeted audiences through viral channels, regardless of whether or not it breaks out to a larger/mass audience. For political communicators, viral spread can be a natural ally, since it tends to work through each person’s particular channels of interest — for instance, I send political links to some friends, music links to others, Philadelphia Eagles links to a different (and currently quite happy) set. If you can produce words, images or video that catch the interest of the particular group of people you’re trying to reach enough, they’ll WANT to pass it far and wide — and once the fire is lit, who knows where it’ll spread?

[For more specific tips for optimizing content for viral spread, see the Online Politics 101 chapter on Viral Marketing.]


Written by
Colin Delany
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