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Autopsy of a Viral Campaign: Working Our Way Backwards, Looking for Clues

First published on The Startup - Aug 8th, 2018

Can you control the emotions, the contagion, the spread? Whether a blog, web page, or a video, what is the secret to crafting the perfect message that captures and influences a large audience?

Understanding Viral Campaigns
(Source: Lucas Amunategui)

Let's look at the things we control and those we don't and make sure we're positioned correctly.

How can you tell if an online campaign is destined to go viral? Unfortunately, unless you’re corralling the crowd by dangling Hamiltons, you’ll have to wait for it to run its course. Only once the dust settles or a large threshold is breached, can you determine how it fared.

The other night, I couldn’t sleep and the topic of going viral and how to best position oneself kept bouncing about in my head. Insomnia sucks but, boy, does it generate lots of ideas.

Retracing Steps

Imagine that somebody, somewhere, receives an email, sees a posting, follows a link, or plays a video and starts smiling at the dancing dogs and grumpy cats.

Before the above happened, another person also consumed the same material and thought that our smiling person would probably enjoy it and passed it along. And somebody before that did the same and so on and so forth…

If you work your way up those tentacles, you eventually reach ground zero, the act initiated by the content’s creator.

Going viral calls for a perfect alignment of events that are mostly out of anybody’s hands. The chain of events leading to this gluttony of digital consumption is of such complexity that its become a unicorn and a favorite conversation topic for us weekend, content warriors. If the entertainment industry, with their deep pockets, heavy rotations, and famous characters can’t guarantee success, how can we assume that clever word crafting on an overcrowded social network, will?

Things We Control

Whether it goes viral or not, the following three points are in our control and need to be perfect:

Starting with a Great Idea

We aren’t talking cats here, right? Hopefully, we’re talking about our business, our craft, or a critically important message. This content needs to be good - scratch that - it has to be great. It needs to be obvious viral material, something a large portion of the population, given the chance, would just love. Whether this is entertainment, inspiration, or a miracle product, it better be guaranteed good!

Creating the Perfect Package

If its written material, it needs to be flawless. If its a video, it needs to be highly polished, etc. It needs to be a people magnet and should scream ‘this is awesome, can’t pry my eyes off the stuff’.

Orchestrating a Seamless Campaign Launch

It also needs to be launched on the right platform to reach the right people. If its a business, something like LinkedIn, if its Social, then Facebook or Instagram, etc. This machine needs to be highly oiled and ready to run.

And the Things We Don’t Control

Now we step into the unknown and take a leap of faith (and a big gulp of wishful thinking). Let’s imagine we’re part of the swarm, one of the pieces in the big viral puzzle. There are two essential and complex emotions required here. Assume we cross paths, us and this event, we not only need the desire to interact with it but we also need the desire to share it along. Both are draconian feats, and short of giving away money each time, hard to control.

Desire to Interact — What Makes the Swarm Tick?

This comes down to the three point mentioned above under the ‘Things we Control’ banner. Those part of the swarm, need to practically trip over the content, understand what it is about instantly, whether through wording or because its from a trusted source, and it has to deliver value.

Desire to Share — What’s the Motivation?

In my opinion, this is the most complicated part, and we don’t think about this enough. Ask yourself what it would take for you to share something to your circle or network? I’m definitely not an easy forwarder. If I share, I really need to think its of great value to another party, or that it will make me look smart or funny in their eyes. Otherwise I’ll pass (no matter how many times it mentions ‘share with 10 people today for best luck’).

On the other end of the spectrum, what if the event implies it’s a tailored secret just for me, too good to share, or that it makes me feel that by sharing it, I will dilute its power?

Does that mean that only middle of the road things will be shared and that bad or too good have a much lower probability of going viral?


Focus on what you control. Take cues from the best material available, take it from YouTube’s most watched videos, Amazon top sales rankings, Ted talks, etc. Either way, it will be an effort well spent and your viewers, whether a handful or millions, will thank you.

Finally, we should all ask ourselves if virality is an important end goal. It sure would be fun to have something of ours go viral and may offer some heightened visibility. But, because it is so unpredictable and hard to forecast, is the cost of shaping your content to fit that imagined mould worth it? Or would a few sincere leads and a sale or two be just as good?

Thanks for reading! And please share this article with a friend or colleague or two :-)

Manuel Amunategui,,
Curator @ and ViralML

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