Jonah Peretti is the founder of BuzzFeed and a co-founder of The Huffington Post. He does an excellent job in the video above (a part of an interview series produced by mediabistroTV) discussing viral content, what it is, and what it is exactly that makes something go viral.
First, distinguish between what viral content is and what it isn’t
When a company pays for ad space on YouTube or promotes Tweets with their content in order to increase the spread of it, it isn’t viral media even if it reaches a certain high number of views. Peretti equates this to the concept of owned and paid media, media that someone controls. Viral media is content that spreads through social networks, by word-of-mouth, without direct control. It is similar to the concept of earned media.
So how does something go viral and is viral media even predictable?
The answer is yes, but it isn’t quite that easy…
Viral content allows for no direct control over it. However, there are still ways of influencing what goes viral i.e., by means of understanding the characteristics of past viral content either mathematically (BuzzFeed does a regression analysis) or empathetically, and then being able to apply that to the creation of new content.
Mathematically speaking, it is not possible to ascertain whether a video will go viral before people see it. However, once 20% of the audience has seen something, it can be statistically predicted whether that content will explode into a viral sensation.
There is also an art to understanding viral media. It is something a person can have a feel for, and it is something you can get better at creating with practice and experience.
An understanding of the time’s zeitgeist, current trends, humor, psychology, and other things are all important to the creation of content that may go viral.
Jonah Peretti’s Advice about creating viral content:
Do not “just copy something that’s already taken off, abstract one level away from it”. Content that borrows too heavily off of existing content removes the novelty that caused that content to go viral in the first place.