youtube sensation, Gangnam Style by PSY

On Going Viral

Why some things are stickier than others.

What drives popularity? Why do some ideas seems to spread with little encouragement, while others fall flat?

A curious thing happened three weeks ago. Our 24 hour hack turned into an internet (by my, very loose definition) success, spreading thanks to press from the likes of FastCompany, BBC, Wired UK and DigitalTrends. There was even a video produced about it. Watching Snapcat grow to over 12,000 downloads in just three weeks made me consider why some things appeal to the masses more than others.

The idea must be simple to explain. If someone else can’t describe what it is, then they’re not going to. We often get caught up trying to create something revolutionary, but in reality the best ideas may already exist. Snapcat is not really a new idea. Photosharing (including selfies) and internet cats are already wildly popular phenomenons. By combining these already successful concepts, easy understanding and simplicity are there right from the start.

The execution of the idea must be simple. It has to be super easy to interact with, use and consume. You cannot expect people to connect with something which they don’t know how to use. Just one example of how Pinterest understood the power of simplicity through usability is their “Pin It Button”, which allows users to add content to their own pinboards from external websites. Make it really easy to share content. The Reblog feature on Tumblr made it simple for bloggers to fill their blogs quickly and create a community.

The Emotional Touch
In his TED talk, “Why Videos Go Viral”, Kevin Allocca references the YouTube sensation, Double Rainbow, currently sitting on 37,431,355 views. It’s the absolute authentic reaction of the creator, Hungrybear9562 that creates an emotional connection with the viewer, provoking a response and therefore encouraging sharing.

It’s got to be provokative. This may not necessarily mean positive emotions, such as humour and awe, but also includes emotions like anger, excitement and frustration, as demonstrated recently in “Mathematics” by Hollie McNish. The content has to speak directly to the tastemakers - more on them soon.

Make it Surprising, Unique, Unexpected and Quirky
What’s the story? Unless there is a story, no one will share it because there’s nothing to tell. Take “Bang With Friends”. It made a pretty fun and exciting story because everyone can relate their own personal experiences to it (unless, like me, none of your friends actually want to bang you). It created not only a sense of curiousity, but also of liberation because it was a secret outlet to express suppressed feelings, those felt by the tastemakers themselves: The teens and tweens.

Being quirky worked wonders for PSY’s Gangnam Style, where his unique look and unexpected but authentic attitude made for a breath of fresh air against the competition of over-sexualised pop idols.

Let Others Participate
Not only did Gangnam Style tick the unexpected and quirky categories, it allowed other creators and tastemakers to recreate the sensation, putting their own unique spin on it. Fans even created a Simpsons version of Gangnam Style.

The same can be said for The Harlem Shake, the internet meme, originally created by 5 Queenslanders. It’s success arose from its simplicity to replicate. All it took was a single camera shot, one cut and a whole lot of directed creativity for it to be recreated, where unique expression could easily be injected into what are simple guidelines. The creators drive this process and the feeling of being in control of creativity makes people excited to share their own content and think of new ways to add to the dialogue. Harlem Shake has even been replicated by the Playboy Playmates.

It’s easy to feel perplexed about what goes viral or is popular. I have come to be content with the fact that it’s the masses that dictate what spreads. By integrating the points outlined above and listening to users, we can create not only great products, but products which people take joy in using and want to share.