Why viral content is not the same as popular content

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“We want this video to go viral” – a phrase used too often without really considering what ‘to go viral’ means. I imagine what people mean when they say this is “we want this video to be really popular and seen by lots of people in our target audience”. But popularity is not the same as virulence. And very few things actually go viral in social media.

The distinction between popularity and virulence is important:

  • Popularity concerns the number of people who see a piece of content
  • Virulence concerns the manner in which this content is shared

A great piece of research exploring these differences has just been completed by a team at Microsoft Research, led by Jake Hofman. The team recorded every tweet containing a link to one of the top 40 websites in the world for music, news and videos over an 18 month period; they then built a data set of all content that had been linked to more than 100 times. This data set included links to nearly 300,000 pieces of content from over 1.4 billion tweets.

Then came the task of analysing how this content had spread, and this is where the difference between ‘going viral’ and ‘being popular’ became clear.

Popular Content

  • Some content, such as many major news stories or brand content, would originally be Tweeted by an official media or brand account to possibly millions of followers. Maybe a few hundred of these would share the link to their followers and then maybe a few of those would share it on again. There is no doubting that the content was popular, and it was probably seen by a very large number of people.
  • But critically the content would be seen by these people over a couple of days and then peter out. Popular but not viral.

Viral Content

  • Other content was spread differently. It typically starts from an obscure feed, only followed by a small number of people. In the first few days it won’t reach anywhere near the audience of the ‘Popular Content’ but would have spread into many new networks – each sharing it with their followers – and this sharing rapidly reaches a momentum.
  • Overall, Viral Content may not reach a higher audience in the short or even medium term, but it has reached a level of momentum that means its audience will slowly grow and grow before it finally peters out.

So when people say they want their content to ‘go viral’ do they really mean that, or do they mean that they want it to be popular with their target audience. ‘Going viral’ is nothing to do with the number of people who see your content but the way it is spread and the speed at which it is seen by people.

In most cases being popular is probably the most important thing – and that is hard enough in a world where more than an hour’s worth of video is uploaded to YouTube every second.

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