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The Anatomy of a Viral

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September 12, 2013

The Anatomy of a Viral

Don’t pretend you haven’t sat and wondered what it is that makes a viral. Why do certain things set YouTube alight and others disappear into the ether? Is there a magic formula that will make your idea fly into the millions?

Well, perhaps.

The first thing you’ve got to do is stop thinking so much. Stop thinking about wonderful video techniques and the alchemy of social media and SEO. Stop thinking about what foxes say or bizarre Korean men in sunglasses pretending to ride a wild horse. Forget about the Internet altogether in fact and cast your mind back to a time when there was no YouTube or virals or social media.

Okay, if you’re as old as I am that’s pretty easy but for many young content marketers these days this idea is ludicrous and impossible. However the fact is inescapable; Good content was always good, it was good before the Internet and it will be good when we’re flying around on hover-boards eating simulated food on Venus.

The reason that certain things go viral is, most likely, because they would have done anyway, regardless of what medium they were released in. If something is really clever, really funny or both and has a universal appeal that transcends age, religion and nationality then it will fly.

The difference is, of course, that we now have different ways of distributing ideas, different social communities and channels, but really they behave in the same way. Word of mouth is still a thousand times more powerful than any billboard or Internet ad. Why? Because it comes from a friend or trusted associate. If a friend (a real friend, not one of those watered down cyber smiles on Facebook) says something is good, and they actually take the time to contact you and point it out (as opposed to lazily posting it on Facebook or Twitter) then it gains immense power.

‘My Goodness’ you think to yourself, ‘someone actually got up off their butt and texted me this…it must be good.’

Yes, it is a sad fact that texting now constitutes conscious effort as it requires more work than most forms of social sharing.

Okay, so you’re already thinking up lots of examples of things which are inane and stupid which went viral like ‘Benton the dog’ etc. But I’m afraid what I have said holds true for even the most insubstantial pointless thing…if it is funny, shocking or surprising and everyone ‘gets it’ then it’s got a pretty good chance of being seen by a great deal of people.

One of the reasons we, as content marketers, often sit and stare at the screen with wild, sad eyes screaming inside our brains ‘Why does it work???’ is that we have come under the spell of the endless toy box that is the internet. It’s easy to make films, animations, memes, and cartoons in a matter of minutes right? Therefore all those ideas you once had that never came to fruition can now happen.

And this is the problem. This is where we are going wrong. It’s not the toys that make the content it’s the same people who always did, it’s the authors, the comedians, the thought-leaders the ‘stand-out’ people. Nothing has changed, I’m sorry but we have to face the reality that all this technology cannot make us talented.

So that’s it…we’re not talented, so we can’t succeed?

No, you probably are talented, we all are in our own way and if you’re a content marketer you probably have some idea what you’re doing…if you don’t you’ll soon be fired so don’t worry.

What we have to do is see through blizzard of laziness and gadgets and get back to basics. What are the nuts and bolts of good content? What makes it good? What makes a joke funny? Who would be interested in it?

Let’s look at one of the biggest YouTube virals of last year: ‘How animals eat their food

This film is on its way to 96 million views. That’s a proper viral. But why? Well, no explanation is required, it’s just proper old-fashioned funny. The characters are a little quirky, and the theme is very simple. It’s just slapstick. What’s clever is that you know what’s coming…you know it’s just going to get more and more ridiculous and you know, at some point, the whole table is going to get destroyed by some out of control beast…in this case a rhino.

So what’s going on here?

  1. Two quirky characters: Nothing new here, remember Waldorf and Stadler, Morcombe and Wise, Abbot and Costello, Bert and Ernie? This is a tried and tested comedy technique as old as the hills, here it is brought up to date with brilliant effect. The two guys are a bit odd, they act rather strangely, and they eat lettuce and drink from baby bottles…perfect, easy, classic setup for a gag.  
  2. Bad animal impressions: Actually that’s a little unfair, the lizard in particular is very well observed. But this is just clowning around, the sort of thing your mates would do at a party after a few beers. The reason it works is that they make the scene very calm and suddenly it explodes with insanity. Just like the Harlem Shuffle. The ‘Shock of the Gag’ hits you like a wave…and suddenly you’ve got an appetite for it.  
  3. Madder and madder: From that point on they’ve got your attention. You know things are just going to get madder and madder, you’re not going to stop watching until the room gets totalled. And you get your pay off…I defy anyone not to laugh out loud at this the first time they watch it. I did, so did my kids…in fact they laughed louder ever time.  
  4. Timing: Comedy timing is used brilliantly here…it’s not just about a gag but delivery is so important.  
  5. Universal appeal: Slapstick is the universal language of comedy. Some people think they’re too high and mighty and intellectual to enjoy it but deep down they’re just supressing their laughter. In every language, with the sound turned down or up, this is funny. It appeals to our inner schadenfreude, that desire to see others fail or make fools of themselves.  

Now, not all virals are funny and funny is not always the best vehicle for your client’s or indeed your own content. Obviously some things go viral because they have a powerful marketing machine behind them, others because they feature celebrity content and so on. However, the ‘hook’ moment remains the same in every viral you will ever see. It’s that little rush of surprise or shock. That moment when the rollercoaster tips over the edge of and begin to fall. That’s all it takes to make a piece of work go viral…take away the gravity and your audience feels vulnerable for a moment.

Good content makes you feel vulnerable

That is the power of a joke, that is the power of a shocking idea, that is the power of content…it makes us feel vulnerable and therefore susceptible to it. If an idea is clever or you didn’t see it coming it makes an impression on your mind. It gives you a physical response, to gasp, or laugh or recoil or even to feel annoyed at being outwitted. If we see something cleverer than we are, we are drawn to it, it has a power over us like a paternal being. You may think this sounds a bit crazy but cast your mind back to the moments in songs or films or commercials which have really jarred you. They’re as clear and fresh as if you’d just watched them for the first time. You look up to these moments in the same way you do key events in your life and in many ways they are just as poignant and valuable. They are milestones to be admired and relived. Each is like a carved notch in your own timeline.

Every genre is true to this theory, I invite you to prove me wrong.

So, if you want to make a viral, you’ve got to take control of the viewer, you’ve got to make them feel vulnerable and therefore impressed and engaged, dare I say slightly weakened? How you do this is your business, but don’t try and be too clever about it. The most powerful moments in your life are driven by simple, base or animalistic emotions.

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