The Ice Bucket Challenge was so last month. Just a few weeks ago it was virtually impossible to escape the wildfire spread of Ice Bucket Challenge videos. Today, it’s stale news. The proverbial 15 minutes are up. Where do these viral sensations come from? Why do they explode so rapidly, only to disappear just as suddenly as they appeared?
Why do we remember Rebecca Black’s amateur hour “Friday,” why did Harlem Shake reach critical mass — and how can those learnings be applied into the modern day instrument of marketing into Mass Media? Most importantly — how does a brand enter the viral arena? (I thought Samsung did a great job of that with the Ice Bucket Challenge.)
To answer some of these questions, let’s first get a broader context on the origins of going viral.
A Brief History Of Virality
To understand where viral sensations come from, you must first look at a broader context. Believe it or not, Youtube didn’t exist 10 years ago. Social networks were in their infancy. Things that would be considered “viral” pre-2004 probably consisted of your grandmother fwd’ing unwanted chain emails. As we know today, the following ten years consisted of an incredible growth and transformation that enabled a fascinating new type of temporal mass media.
Myspace was at its peak. The iPhone began to change the way we use the internet. You probably got rickrolled. Compounded with increasingly faster internet speeds and a video platform that didn’t stink –2007 was the year Youtube became a household name. With its adoption, we saw the first true propagation of viral videos. Chocolate Rain. Dramatic Chipmunk. Leave Brittany Alone. Rickroll landmines sprinkled every corner of the internet.
The Golden Years (2009-2012)
Facebook officially overthrew Myspace. It seemed that every year was declared the year of mobile in advertising circles. The social ecosystem began to mature, and users were sharing videos, images and stories everyday on whatever device they wanted.
During these transformative years, the way we communicate and the accessibility of information arguably changed. There were countless memes and videos to reflect on with nostalgia (or contempt), but two critical ones stand out to me as paradigm shakers:
- Old Spice: I say viral advertising, you think Old Spice. They did it. Who would have known a shirtless guy in a video mixed with some clever camerawork became the first true example of a widespread viral advertisement. This is the benchmark of success in the eyes of many hoping to manufacture virality.
- Harlem Shake: This may be a curious addition at first glance, but I think the success of the Harlem Shake & The Ice Bucket challenge are closely tied. It was a rare viral video example where not one video, but hundreds of thousands of videos with a similar premise propagated almost overnight. It was arguably the first true, mass-user-generated content explosion. There’s just something really cool about tens of thousands of people — uncoordinated — uploading their own videos, and disseminating them into the stratosphere.
The Buzzfeed Effect
With the context of the past 10 years out of the way, where are we today? If you’re still in the reading mood, check out this great article which dissects the Harlem Shake trend, and tied a big part of it’s success into the organic (& intentional) promotion via content networks and aggregators. Today, all the Buzzfeeds of the world hold enormous sway on what goes “viral.”
Perhaps the match that lights the fire is something as simple as a celebrity retweet. If content and social networks repeat it, things go critical mass and it explodes. To me, the machine behind getting 2% to 60% of people “in on the thing” is a fascinating infrastructure. What’s the boiling point to make the secret sauce of a viral success?
Unquestionably, this human and technological question of “what is viral” has been beaten to death in individual parts over the past few years. But there is a broader abstract learning that needs a tight answer: a repeatable formula, a timely reaction, an amusing spin, and ultimately — a human response.
Have any thoughts on virality? Let me know in the comments!