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viral content

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Viral content is material, such as an article, an image or a video that spreads rapidly online through website links and social sharing. The internet meme, a classic example of viral content, usually takes the form of a video or an image with one or two lines of text. However, any kind of online content that appeals to users enough to make them want to share it can be spread virally.

Content goes viral for various reasons. Entertainment value is a common characteristic; others include usefulness, information, artistic merit, promotion of viewpoints and shock value.  Another driver of viral content is the sharer’s audience and reputation. Social influencers have established online presences through multiple channels and large followings on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and are widely considered authorities among their follower base. Their ability to reach large numbers of people who trust their opinions makes social influencers especially valuable to anyone who wants their content to achieve a large audience. Influencer marketing targets such individuals in the effort to capitalize on that value.

The viral ad is the holy grail of online marketing because potential customers do the work of getting marketing messages in front of potential customers, with the added benefit of implied approval. However, ads and other content are often widely shared for other reasons as well. A Microsoft ad for Office 365 that went viral in 2015 touted the product’s ability to enable work anywhere and at any time of day, such as during dinner or at a child’s performance or soccer game. Reaction to the ad, which was substantial, mostly came down to users objecting to that idea’s conflict with any possibility of work-life balance.

This was last updated in September 2016

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