How to Create Viral Content and Why it's a Waste of Time
Some product links are affiliate links but all are where I make my gear purchases. You can also find all of my photography gear recommendations here.
In 2013, I became obsessed with GIFs and more specifically with cinemagraphs. They were unlike anything I had ever seen before. My only point of reference was the idea of magical photographs from Harry Potter. So I set out to learn how to make them and once I did, it was basically all I wanted to do in my free time. Within 6 months, companies started to reach out and to ask me to create GIFS for various social media campaigns.
My first brush with virality occurred with a commissioned piece I created for St. Ives. It was always important to me to create beautiful and impactful images but I also kept the analytical and objective goals of each image in mind while working on creative projects. Whenever a commissioned cinemagraph or GIF of mine got posted, I tracked it analytically. Anyway, this GIF that I created for St. Ives quickly shot up to a 100,000 notes on Tumblr, then 250,000 and was around 500,000 notes the last time I looked.
Since then I've created GIFs and videos that have been viewed tens of millions of times. My Giphy account currently stands at about 140 million views. With that first piece, as the creator, I didn't entirely understand why it outperformed everything else I created beforehand by so much. So I started a Tumblr to keep track of every piece above 100,000 notes that I came across. Over the next couple of months I started to notice several patterns. Then over the next couple of years, I started to see the same patterns pop up on other social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest (and get implemented by companies such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy). Here are some of the factors that make a post go viral:
Don't think Ferraris or fur coats, that stuff does okay but it rarely goes viral. Aspirational content on the web that tends to go viral is more about attainable ideal lifestyle moments. Think blanket picnics on the beach during sunset or a nomadic van that’s luxe but not inconceivable. These are most often still images that convey a scene of some sort.
From scary jolts to weird bloopers, things that have surprising twists popped up again and again. They were often GIFS taken from videos. There was a moment in time, when Vine was popular, where the funny twist ending or clever captions really ruled. These days, this somewhat comes up on Twitter with GIFS being used a punchline.
Again, not Ferraris. It's about things we all experience on some small level but taken to excess. From food to travel to beauty routines, I think there's something viscerally exciting about seeing something taken beyond a reasonable limit. Does anyone really need 6 cheeseburgers? No, but it looks fun, or so I think is the appeal of it all. Instagram in particular seems to promote accounts that are niche focused and excessive. Pick a topic and you can go down an endless rabbit hole of excessive food, excessive travel (though it's funny how all the globetrotters end up in all of the same spots in Bali, Jaipur, Cappadocia and Paris) and excessive beauty.
Things that often go viral
There were certain types of content that seemed to regularly go viral on Tumblr: very cute animals, sunsets, unmade beds, beaches and beautiful people. Combinations of these things did particularly well, which I ultimately concluded is what happened with the St. Ives GIF I made years ago, since it was a GIF of a beach at sunset.
Viral Content Across Social Media
I started thinking about virality because of Tumblr. At the time, I was often working on commercial projects that would live on Tumblr and I wanted them to be successful so I wanted to understand what did well. That was a jumping off point though, not the end goal. I used what I learned and then added my own creative view. As a platform, Tumblr encouraged creativity and rewarded a wide range of art (through community features). The community managers walked the line between encouraging engagement and nurturing creativity exceptionally well. Back when I started thinking about all of this in 2014, I felt like the internet was a magical place where anyone could find a safe niche to express their creativity and themselves. This is not how I feel in 2018, for many reasons.
Since 2014, I've seen Instagram, Facebook and Twitter veer heavily towards engagement over community safety and creativity. Viral content seems to be the end goal of everyone, from the users to the platforms to the agencies creating branded content.
The Value of Virality
I'm sure that somewhere out there is a data scientist, probably at Facebook, with a firmer grasp of algorithms and a much larger data set that could break down content trends more granularly than me. They probably have a boss that can tie the data to revenue and report out how much virality is worth in dollar terms on a social media platform. That's all to say that I think we pretend that social platforms are about creativity and community but I'm not sure how true that is in reality.
When virality is the goal, popularity is the goal, exposure is the goal. Creativity, newness, uniqueness all require a certain willingness to fail, to be unpopular, to be different. Yes, there are still individuals and organizations committed to those things that use social media to chronicle their work and sometimes they go viral because uniquness is interesting but that is the exception not the rule. What I worry about is that most people (and a lot of creativity agencies) now focus on replicating what has already done well. A recent Instagram account highlights this tendency to replicate shockingly well.
As a creative, the race to maximize engagement on social media platforms is occasionally disheartening. It feels like a race to the bottom. Any time something fresh and unique happens, it's copied straight to cliché status in record time.
I'm tempted to say that there's no value in virality, to point out that I have not gotten a single creative gig from my 140 million views of Giphy. I'd like to say that instead of enjoying my occasional creative success I often feel trapped by the pressure to create what will be popular and when things do well I end up seeing my ideas copied or my work literally stolen by "curating feature" accounts. Those things are true but I've also worked on the commercial side and I know that success is measured by likes and theoretical ROI. So I don't have a neat answer here but I just want to point out that by replicating, we're just doing something that someone has already done better to chase an ever shrinking slice of attention span.