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Why your “viral” probably won’t go viral

Why your “viral” probably won’t go viral

Some people have bigger feet than others. Some people have higher IQ’s than others.

Some people have exceptionally big feet. Some people benefit from extreme intelligence.

Key word = exceptionally.

Key word = extreme.

In fact most people have feet that are slightly bigger or slightly smaller than the average foot size. Ditto for IQ.

Statisticians would describe this with a Normal Distribution graph.

Ignore the scary maths symbols. If this were a normal distribution of foot size, the horizontal axis would correspond to the size of foot and the vertical axis to the percentage of people with feet of a particular size.

The peak in the graph would correspond to the average, and most common, foot size.

And, in this example, (borrowed from wikipedia) 68.2% of people would have feet that are slightly bigger or slightly smaller than average.

13.6% of people would have noticeably big feet.

Another 13.6% would have feet that are noticeably small.

2.1% would have exceptionally big feet.

And 0.1% would have ‘extreme’ feet.

This kind of distribution applies to all sorts of natural phenomena and to just about every field of human endeavour. Some people are taller, some people are better at sport etc. Most people are either side of the average. But some, the very few, are exceptional or extreme.

This also applies to ads or to any kind of ‘content’.

Most ads on TV are slightly better or slightly worse than average. Some are good. But very few are awesome.

And your content needs to be awesome if you have designs on it going viral.

For awesome read keyword exceptional or keyword extreme.

But ‘viral’ briefs are put into the same systems, worked on by the same people, and quality controlled by the same clients that churn out largely average content.

The same people, systems and cultures that, in many cases, are hardwired to avoid the extreme.

Key phrase = head above the parapet.

And yet some planners, creatives and clients seem to think that because their brief carries the word ‘viral’ at the top, the resulting content has some kind of divine right to be distributed for free by millions of hapless ‘consumers’.

(They might as well write ‘abracadabra’ at the top for all the wishful that writing ‘viral’ entails.)

Let’s assume (like most ad agency people still do) that ‘viral’ content is video content.

With over 20 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, what is it that you’re going to do differently with this brief to give your viral a chance of going viral?

Let’s face it. Unless you’re going to relax some rules, unless you’re going to lose the usual commercial safety nets, unless you’re going to embrace extremity, the odds are stacked against you.

Let’s face it. Even if you relax some rules, even if you lose the commercial safety nets, even if you embrace extremity, the odds are stacked against you.

It probably won’t happen.

(Thanks to Andy Irvine for the bell curve of awesomeness image).


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  2. I have written a few articles that I thought might go viral. I published, I shared, I hoped, I waited, and did my contacts go wild and share them on, starting the first set of dominos rolling…

    Heck no 🙁 Still, there is no harm in trying, and there is no logic sometimes to why certain things do go viral.

    Maybe I should just make a video of myself pulling silly faces and make it so bad and pathetic that it sucks big time. That would no doubt get a million views on Youtube, but wouldn’t do me any good.

    I need to teach the dog to sing maybe, or to tell jokes…

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I suspect that almost nothing goes truly, globally viral these days without some kind of nudge or the internet equivalent of blue touch paper.

      A true viral effect is a form of chain reaction. And, like it takes a whole lot of TNT to start the nuclear chain reaction in an atom bomb, so it takes a fair bit of seeding activity to kick off a viral chain reaction.

      Or some extraordinary good luck.



  3. Great article.

    I think it is would be very interesting to know which end of the ‘bell curve of awesomeness’ is more likely to produce a viral outcome. It is subjective of course, but we could take a sample of things that went viral and then get a bunch of people to rank them as either ‘awesome’ or ‘so shit it might actually be good’. We average the rankings and then see if either end is statistically over represented.

    I suspect the answer would be the bottom end.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Content at the bottom end of the bell curve goes viral through people “laughing at”, whereas content at the top end goes viral through people “laughing (or engaging) with”. Like you say either can generate large numbers but only one will generate lasting goodwill.

      I’m not sure which end pictures of cats sit at.



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