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Will You Go Viral? Here's A Way To Predict

Jan 3 2014, 8:26am CST | by

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Will You Go Viral? Here's A Way To Predict
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Will You Go Viral? Here's A Way To Predict

The following post is by Roger Wu, cofounder of the business-to-business content distribution network, Cooperatize .

We’ve seen it too many times.  Someone tweets something in poor taste, the Internet gets wind of it, and soon this person’s online reputation is destroyed (ranging from fired to fined to shamed).  The Internet enables mob mentality ranging from social media phenomena to penny stocks that are touted in a “back alley” chat room.  Why does this happen?  Why do some things go viral while others, arguably better or more entertaining, remain in the dark?

The Internet has become a deluge of information overload for many.  On Facebook, 88 new things  are shared per hour per newsfeed (or 1.5 things per minute).  How do we decide what to look at?  We look at stories that are of particular interest, while other stories utilize Facebook’s algorithm, which leverages the “wisdom of friends,” bumping stories that are the most commented, shared, or liked to the top of your feed.  And thus, because of the new psychological phenomenon, known as “fear of missing out” or FOMO, you are more likely to take a look.

There are two strategies we’ve named that we think create virality in social media:

  • Roadblock Effect– a top down effect resulting in concentrated impressions in a short time period
  • Stagger Effect – a bottoms up approach that results in an equal number of impressions as the Roadblock but over a longer period of time

There isn’t enough data to determine what works better for each strategy, as we’re just starting to understand how this works on a social level.

The Roadblock Effectsimulates everyone talking about your story at the same time to the point where you can’t get past it.  You couldn’t escape the “Harlem Shake”videos during the first few weeks of 2013. While the original “Harlem Shake” received some views from the fallout, it was the Maker Studios’ version that drove it into the mainstream . Determined not to miss the next big thing after some high profile social media tweets during the Super Bowl, big corporations quickly jumped onto the “Harlem Shake” bandwagon.  This groundswell of time and space created a massive “knock out punch” that Internet users couldn’t miss.

A similar phenomenon happens during Sunday night television.  The real time nature of hit shows likeBreaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” and “The Walking Dead” coupled with social media drive more viewers to these shows. Why do we watch? “Everyone else is doing it, so I better do it too.” It happens in the real world too, with many subscribing to the monthly cosmetics sample serviceBirchbox, to guarantee their invitation to their social circle’s monthly “sample trading” parties.

While the Roadblock Effect is powerful, coordinating time and place is difficult. The Stagger Effect doesn’t require such intense coordination.  It still creates the same illusion that everyone is talking about you, but it is accomplished in a (you guessed it) staggered manner.  Last year you couldn’t miss Psy’s“Gangam Style.”  Unlike “Harlem Shake,” though, it took a longer time to get the same number of views, extending its popularity by six months.  For this writer, it took 15 different people to email, tweet, status update, and instant message over a period of two weeks before deciding to watch.

Recently, Amazon took on a hybrid strategy by staggering two high impact stories: It started by using the Roadblock Effect on its story about Sunday Delivery, then staggered that with its “60 Minutes” drone delivery story, which took over most of social media.

Both of these effects help to drive traffic, but the key is building a positive feedback loop: messages that beget themselves. Seeding the story is not enough; once a topic is trending or close to trending others need to share it organically. Maker’s Studios started “Harlem Shake,”and it was interesting enough to spread to IAC’s properties, corporations, and viral engines like Gawker and Buzzfeed that were able to perpetrate the viral loop.  With enough impressions, “Harlem Shake” rose above all of the regular noise (the Buzz Barrier).  This prominence, coupled with the recent desire (from the Super Bowl) to be quick and real time, resulted in the Roadblock Effect:

  • The content was seeded in multiple outlets to generate a critical mass of initial impressions quickly.
  • The content was interesting enough that it created a positive feedback loop.
  • The concentration of impressions broke through the Buzz Barrier.
  • The content achievedvirality.

The Stagger Effect requires a lower concentration of buzz, but over a longer period of time. “Gangam Style” was seeded in the “long tail” amongst K-Pop fans following Psy’s record label.  From there, the piece took a few months to hit mainstream media, as outlets could no longer ignore it.  By then, anyone within three degrees of a K-Pop fan knew of Psy, while the media made sure everyone else knew.  The elements of a Stagger Effect campaign, unique from the Roadblock Effect:

  • The content was seeded in the long tail amongst groups that self selected affinity for the product (in this case K-Pop).
  • The content broke out of its bubble and spilled over into mainstream.

Since so many messages are bombarding us, we have to ignore most of them.  However, the concentration of these impressions forces us to take a look.  Social networks and search engines are starting to understand the time factor as the “real time webbegins to evolve.  Trending Topics on Twitter and Facebook, Epic Swarm badges on Foursquare, even Amazon’s Real Time Top 100, are all examples. 

Pulling this all together, we can introduce the probability of virality, P(V),whereas, is a continuous probability functionbased on number of impressions I logged during some time interval x, starting at time T, less k, the Buzz Barrier constant, over time t.

In this chart, notice the yellow Buzz Barrier over time, described by f (k(t)), the blue and red lines break through the Buzz Barrier (the blue line breaks twice, and the red line once) measured by f (I(t)).Thus, the probability of virality, P(V), increases the greater the number of impressions I(t) ,” t, where I(t)>k(t).

This concentration of impressions is similar to other strategies including:

  • Sports: 9 singles in 9 innings don’t score a run; 9 singles in one inning, and you can probablywin the game.
  • Finance: Enough chatter drives trading volume and eventually trading volume begets itself once on “Most Active” lists.

In summary, the Roadblock Effect requires intense coordination and larger and more media outlets, while the Stagger Effect requires identifying key influencers that will organically spread the content over a longer period of time.  In addition to this distribution strategy, in order to be successful, requires good, high quality, spreadable content and a certain degree of luck.

We’re still learning from our business (  helps businesses seed their content across a variety of publishers; we have noticed that most of our advertisers utilize the Roadblock Effect or Stagger Effect) and will share more when we see some interesting results.  In the meantime, keep an eye on the Buzz Barrier constant; if you happen to get above that, get ready – you might go viral!

You can follow Roger Wu on Twitter at @rogerwu99 .

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