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The New Rules of Viral News on Social Media

The top viral news of 2013 was dominated by humor and human interest rather than traditional newsworthy features, judging by CNN’s roundup of the top stories of the year. The Harlem Shake, Grumpy Cat, a baby waking up to “Gangnam Style,” and an anchorwoman receiving an on-camera proposal were a few of the biggest viral stories from around the country. As these illustrate, the social media version of news reflects a paradigm shift from both traditional media and text-oriented Internet searching, a trend which has implications for marketing strategists aiming to create viral content. Content that sparks social sharing and creates conversation is the new standard for news in digital media.



On YouTube, the popularity of the Harlem Shake was both a phenomenon in itself and a lesson in how viewer engagement and conversation fuel viral distribution. The video’s nonverbal narrative, structured around a single dancer inspiring a crowd, extends an unspoken invitation to imitate, reinforced by hypnotically simple visuals and soundtrack. Life imitated art as audiences around the world shot their own versions of the video. The technically unsophisticated cinematography enabled even non-technical filmmakers to get into the act, multiplying the viral effect. Like “Gangnam Style” before it, the Harlem Shake illustrates the viral potency of a video marketing formula that combines humor, music, and action for audience participation. It also illustrates how personal, informal engagement can trump the traditional reporter when it comes to reaching a digital video viewing audience.



Informality also reigns on Facebook. According to year-end statistics released by the social media site, the announcement of Pope Francis proved the most popular post of 2013, paving the way for a social media phenomena that continues to grow. The Pope has friendly, grandfatherly charisma and knack for creating photo opportunities and sound-bytes. Combine that with the global social network of the Catholic Church and the media’s fascination with ecclesiastical politics, and the pontiff was the story of the year, ahead of election coverage and the birth of royal baby, Prince George. Like his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi, the Pope has shown how a message of simple charity resonates with audiences and inspires social sharing.

Photo by Semilla Luz via Flickr


In the mobile texting market, Twitter’s research team found that the year’s viral success stories did not share a single surface pattern. Instead, they fell into several variant models, which did illustrate some underlying principles for gaining popularity. A Vine video showing actor Ryan Gosling refusing to eat his cereal spread rapidly through strategic sharing with key influencers. A video of astronaut Chris Hadfield playing a David Bowie song in space gained attention due to its originator’s unique position to leverage the media. A Dove beauty campaign video relied on link-sharing by a fan base composed of local networks. All three examples illustrated the promotional power of distributing short, shareable videos through mobile texting networks.


Digital TV

In an age of HDTV, viral Internet trends can also become TV trends. Consumers are increasingly not purchasing TV and Internet services separately, but are receiving both through combined services such as and viewing both on the same high-definition screen. As a result, viral videos on Internet and mobile media now have the potential to gain traction on TV, as illustrated by the rise of Vine TV videos in 2013. Dunkin Donuts took the lead in designing 6-second videos designed to reach both Vine and TV audiences. This merging of Vine and TV has inspired a number of viral video sensations, including Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Epic Splits commercial, quickly topped by the superior flexibility of digital Chuck Norris.



It’s not all about videos, though, as the rising popularity of Pinterest images and infographics in 2013 illustrated. Top pins of the year featured content such as food recipes, travel locations, fashion items, design ideas, and even infographics with tips on bear safety for hikers and campers. Common to all these topics is an appeal to a community with shared interests, helping account for viral distribution. With infographics the journey from traditional print media comes full circle, illustrating how multimedia social sharing can stimulate conversation and textual discussion, perpetuating viral distribution.


Photo by cambodia4kidsorg via Flickr

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