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How does viral content spread via social networks?

Every group of social media marketers I speak to point to the most difficult part of their job:  to consistently produce good content.  
They get their content from:
  • Agencies, 
  • From subject matters from throughout their organizations 
  • They rely on listening tools to discover and amplify mentions of their brands.

Another common theme is the quest for the holy grail of posted content:  A viral posting.  Well scientists are trying to find out what's in the secret sauce; whether a viral posting can be predicted.
 
Comparing How Many Initial Same Posts
Two Types of Viral Content
A posted photo doesn't have to be posted by a very popular page in order to trigger a large cascade.  It can be an Average Joe with a compelling story or message.  
The research points to two different types of postings that proved viral worthy: 
1.  A posting by someone famous (think Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars) or 
2.  a posting from a less famous source that found appeal for other reasons. 
How Viral Content Spreads
These viral cascades typically start fast; early reproduction speed, the initial velocity across the network, seems to be a key marker. Further, as the photo spreads, it begins to matter less who spread it originally, and the actual kind of content matters less.  One thing about pictures though, captions do seem to be important.
The Odds Are Against You
You can try to post something that goes viral, but the odds are against you.  In studies, one of out every 3,000 links produced a 'large event,' or a sharing phenomenon that reached at least a 100 additional persons. But truly viral events with multiple generations of sharing occur only about once in a million instances.
Postings that start from a very popular source (again think about Ellen DeGeneres or The President with David Ortiz) start with an initial big spurt and then fall off.  On the other hand a viral posting with more modest beginnings (one of those 'Please repost this to prove to my girlfriend how much I love her' or 'If we get a million shares this young girl will get her medicine') demonstrates smaller & consistent growth over time.
 
Viral Path Patterns
Who Is Doing All This Sharing?  
Well you can guess some obvious things.  A picture of Mrs. Obama doing a good deed will get more shares from women and liberals.  A picture of a couple with a guy asking sharers to support his commitment to his girlfriend will get more shares from males. 
Well Connected Followers
Still the viral likelihood of the share depends on the importance of well-connected followers.  Or in some cases if there are outside factors like having the news media acknowledge the phenomenon.  Some of the hottest shares were successfully driven primarily by word-of-mouth adoption.  They had to rely on Word of Mouth, in part because those that created them did not initially have large advertising budgets, and in part because, by design, they contained features to explicitly encourage sharing.
So do we know how to produce viral content? Not yet, but we do know how some viral content became viral.
The structural virality of online diffusion,  Goel,  Anderson, et al,  Stanford University
The Anatomy of Large Facebook Cascades, Alex Dow , Facebook Data Science
Ron Shulkin blogs researches and writes about enterprise technology focused on innovation and social media. You can follow him Twitter. You can follow his blogs at this Facebook group.  You can connect with Ron on LinkedIn.  
Ron Shulkin is the Chicago area Director for Spredfast. Spredfast provides a social relationship platform that allows organizations to manage, monitor, and measure their social media programs at scale. Spredfast enables more people, in more places, to engage in more conversations from a single platform on supported social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ YouTube and popular blogging platforms. You can learn more about Spredfast here.

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