The Average Life Span of Viral Web Content

Virality Score
Nov 25, 2013 · 4 min read

It’s no surprise that internet users are fickle and we have short attention spans. There is just so much internet content out there to consume that we’re almost trained to have short attention spans. What about “viral” content? Surely that must have more staying power, right? That has to live longer and be shared for a good while. Well, you may be surprised to find out that’s not necessarily true.

While every now and then we have some long viral wave and content like the “Gangnam Style” video get shared for weeks and even months on end, most content doesn’t.

I decided to see what this fall off or “tail” was for social media sharing activity. Virality Score measures the relative degree to which content is viral hour by hour. If you’re not familiar with how the scoring process works, you can read more here. I decided to take a look at published content over a week. Lots of it.

It is important to note that this is how viral content currently is and not was. The x-axis in these graphs represent when content was published and the y-axis represents how viral that content is at the time of the observation (Nov. 24th at 11pm CT to be exact). Looking at the data this way allows us to see this sharing fall off.

The first graph depicts the, current, maximum Virality Score observed for content published over the past week.

Highest Virality Score observed when looking at content published over a one week period.

We can already see here that content doesn’t remain viral for long. There are some exceptions and there’s some piece of content that just won’t quit here from the 18th. It’s still being shared at a great rate. There’s also some content on the 20th that stands out among all other content from that day. Though we still see a lot of up and down here and we aren’t getting a sense for the sharing performance of a typical piece of content.

The next graph is the average virality score for content from the same one week period. It more clearly illustrates the “tail” here for sharing activity across social media.

Average Virality Score observed when looking at content published over a one week period.

This graph is a lot smoother. Again we see a few spikes here and there, but it very clearly defines the life span of content. It’s easier to tell from this graph that the life span is only about a day and this is likely what you should expect for a typical piece of viral content.

A day?! Wow. On average, content ends up being half as viral within a few hours. By a day, it’s only being shared a fraction of what it once was. Though it seems that it can linger like that for a while, the “golden moment” of virality for content is within the first day. One might even say within the first few hours (each bar in this graph represents an hour).

There’s some great observations to be made here. Aside from our seemingly short attention spans, this tells us that it is imperative to share your content across social media immediately. Waiting isn’t going to do you any good. When people say that is “so yesterday” perhaps it’s not as silly as it sounds.

Is there simply too much content to get to out there?
Are we overwhelmed by it all?

A clever assumption one might make is that content shared on social media networks ends up in some sort of “stream” and that content across the internet is often “paginated” on blogs and other sites. So we end up missing content since we aren’t all plugged in 24/7.

So how far back do we look for our news? We simply may only end up reading what’s on the front-page of a site. Sure enough, one of the hardest things about content publishing is getting users to dig deeper into a site.

This also begs the question, are “streams” really better than pagination?

As far as content streaming by and being missed because other content pushes it out of view, that’s also a great observation and many marketers will tell you that you need to share content more than once. Of course you’ll want to be careful about spamming people, but often sharing something just once is not enough. To borrow a well known tech quote:

Share early. Share often. Listen to your visitors.

While any good marketer will tell you this is a good philosophy, keep in mind that there is a shelf life on your content even if you share multiple times across multiple channels. Word travels faster than ever these days and internet content moves fast.

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