Why ‘going viral’ is overrated

Views are nice. Engagement is better. Establishing genuine, authentic and meaningful connections is best.

going-viral-overrated

In case you’re wondering, the most popular video on YouTube is the toxic brain worm Baby Shark Dance. It has over 8.2 billion views.

And from that one example, we tend to measure everything that comes after.  Digital has screwed up our idea of what it means to go viral. We’re not happy unless we get into the hyper-inflated numbers typical of social media influencers. Maybe not Baby Shark numbers, but definitely in the millions.

But does that mean that something that doesn’t hit these numbers is a failure? An old stat I found said that over half of YouTube videos have less than 500 views. I couldn’t find a more recent tally, but I suspect that’s still true.

And, if it is, my immediate thought is that those videos must suck. They weren’t worth sharing. They didn’t have what it takes to go viral. They are forever stuck in the long, long tail of YouTube wannabes.

But is going viral all it’s cracked up to be?

Let’s do a little back-of-an-envelope comparison. A week and a half ago, I launched a video that has since gotten about 1,500 views. A few days ago, a YouTuber named MrBeast launched a video titled, “I Spent 50 Hours Buried Alive.” In less than 24 hours, it racked up over 30 million views. Compared to that, one might say my launch was a failure. But was it?  It depends on what your goals for a video are. And it also depends on the structure of social networks.

Social media networks are built of nodes. Within the node, people are connected by strong ties. They have a lot in common. But nodes are often connected by weak ties. These bonds stretch across groups that have less in common. Understanding this structure is important in understanding how a video might spread through a network.

Depending on your video’s content, it may never move beyond one node. It may not have the characteristics necessary to get passed along the ties that connect separate nodes. This was something I explored many years ago when I looked at how rumors spread through social networks. In that post, I talked about a study by Frenzen and Nakamoto that looked at some of the variables required to make a rumor spread between nodes.

Some of the same dynamics hold true when we look at viral videos. If you’ve had less than 500 views, as apparently over 50% of YouTube videos do, chances are you got stuck in a node. But this might not be a bad thing. Sometimes going deep is better than going wide.

My video, for example, is definitely aimed at one particular audience, people of Italian descent in the region where I live. According to the latest government census, the total possible “target” for my video is probably less than 10,000 people. And, if this is the case, I’ve already reached 15% of my audience. That’s not a mind-blowing success record, but it’s a start.

My goal for the video was to ignite an interest in my audience to learn more about their own heritage. And it seems to be working. I’ve never seen more interest in people wanting to learn about their own ancestors in particular, or the story of Italians in the Okanagan region of British Columbia in general.

My goal was never to just get a like or even a share, although that would be nice. My goal was to move people enough to act. I wanted to go deep, not wide.

To go “deep,” you have to fully leverage those “strong ties.” What is the stuff those ties are made of? What is the common ground within the node? The things that make people watch all 13-and-a-half minutes of a video about Italian immigrants are the very same things that will keep it stuck within that particular node. As long as it stays there, it will be interesting and relevant. But it won’t jump across a weak tie, because there is no common ground to act as a launching pad.

If the goal is to go “wide” and set a network effect in motion, then you have to play to the lowest common denominator: those universal emotions that we all share, which can be ignited just long enough to capture a quick view and a social share. According to this post about how to go viral, they are: status, identity protection, being helpful, safety, order, novelty, validation and voyeurism.

Another way to think of it is this: Do you want your content to trigger “fast” thinking or “slow” thinking? Again, I use Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s cognitive analogy about how the brain works at two levels: fast and slow. If you want your content to “go wide,” you want to trigger the “fast” circuits of the brain. If you want your content to “go deep,” you’re looking to activate the “slow” circuits. It doesn’t mean that “deep” content can’t be emotionally charged. The opposite is often true. But these are emotions that require some cognitive focus and mindfulness, not a hair-trigger reaction. And, if you’re successful, that makes them all the more powerful. These are emotions that serve their inherent purpose. They move us to action.

I think this whole idea of going “viral” suffers from the same hyper-inflation of expectations that seems to affect everything that goes digital. We are naturally comparative and competitive animals, and the world that’s gone viral tends to focus us on quantity rather than quality. We can’t help looking at trending YouTube videos and hoping that our video will get launched into the social sharing stratosphere.

But that doesn’t mean a video that stays stuck with a few hundred views didn’t do its job. Maybe the reason the numbers are low is that the video is doing exactly what it was intended to do.

Gord Hotchkiss is president of Out of My Gord consulting. Read more of his work on MediaPost.

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