Social media marketing has a holy grail, and it is called “going viral”. Unfortunately, “virality” is largely a myth. Nothing ever really goes “viral” by itself.

Every now and then we come across content that “went viral”. It seems like millions of people discovered it, liked it, shared it, and we don’t know exactly how. It bestows importance on the post – it makes it seem really important if all by itself it can climb the pinnacle of social media marketing.

But how do things go viral? How does a post on an obscure website with 100 readers a month suddenly get shared and liked by millions upon millions?

It is anything but an organic, “viral” process.

True “virality” – in the sense of a “virus” would mean it gets passed on from person to person. The truth is, if you look closely, we can almost always identify why something went viral. It has little to do with organic “virality” of the content, i.e. it is not a powerful “infection” that gets passed on from person to person.

One big guy is enough

Most content goes viral because one (sometimes more, but one is enough) major distributor picks up the content. The news of a woman laughing after buying a Halloween mask was broadcast by a TV station and went “viral” from there. It is in fact very often traditional media such as television that is responsible for content going viral. 

If content really went “viral” in the epidemiological sense, passing only from person to person, it would take a lot longer. In reality, there is invariably a large mass distributor involved.

The biggest “superspreaders” are not bloggers, influencers, or other individuals with online personalities, but very traditional media channels.

Television

Around the world, television channels are picking up Youtube and other Internet content. This is a sure way of content to go viral. Some TV channels even take money to take your content “viral”. Almost every country now has entire channels or at least programs which take content from the Internet and repeat it.

Facebook groups

Sometimes the distributor is not TV, but a single large Facebook group, or whatever social medium is popular in your country. The content that is meant to go “viral” is intentionally posted in these groups.

Celebrities

Many posts go viral because a celebrity reposts or retweets them. That too is not strictly “viral” – it is a single large multiplier that influences millions of people at once.

In other words, popularity on the Internet is mostly driven, not by a million one-to-one shares, but rather by a handful of one-to-one-million blasts.

Targeting

More often than not, the content is specifically targeted. A funny post about a new tea shop doesn’t go viral because 20 people liked the tea, but because the shop spent money targeting the post to tea lovers.

Money Rules the Virus

The sad truth is that a lot of content that goes viral does so because someone put money where their post is. Many “viral” posts become popular because there was some seed promotion. Even big media outlets often “frontload” content by spending money on targeting. The money is likely recovered by the increased exposure, new followers, income from advertising, or payments from third parties.

As you can see, there is very little organic virality here. Very little content goes slowly viral, rather it “explodes” onto the scene by very specific means.

What does that mean for marketers?

Don’t chase virality. Don’t try to write the next viral post or create the next viral video. Instead, work on a distribution strategy that works.

If you want your content to go “viral”, you need to identify the ideal “superspreader”. For most marketers, it means spending money. Only in the rarest of cases does content naturally spread around the Internet by entirely organic, viral means.