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One of my client’s posts went “viral” on the weekend.

Not in a Kony 2012 kinda way, but viral within our specific online community (which I believe is more important).

It also happened on Facebook, which took me by surprise even more.

This is a good time to admit that this title is somewhat misleading… as like all good, realistic digital marketers, I do NOT know the EXACT formula to MAKE something go viral.

As I said, I was surprised. But like all good digital marketers, this has led me to review the aspects of the post that may have contributed to this result, to try and understand and learn from it.

This particular client has been active on Facebook (and other social media channels) for about 5 years now, but over the last couple of years, organic reach and engagement on Facebook has become more and more challenging (for them and many others).

Now you may say that this just means that our content or posting schedule isn’t “engaging” enough, but we have done countless tests, and sometimes share the same visual content on Instagram where it consistently garners great results.

We haven’t noticed a huge change on Instagram engagement since the introduction of its algorithm, but it paints a clear picture to us that when our community can see our updates, they like them.

We have also noticed a shift in our community to them using Instagram more actively than Facebook, so although they still “Like” the Page, they aren’t using Facebook as much as Instagram, and so aren’t seeing our updates on Facebook, but are on Instagram.


What does “go viral” actually mean?

In its simplest definition, “going viral” means being quickly shared amongst a connected group of online users.

It’s the ripple effect, or chain reaction of on-sharing that allows the item of content to be seen by a much larger audience than originally expected. Usually, one that is much larger than the original sharer’s own online community.

Facebook actually has its own specific definition of vitality:

“the number of people who have created a story from your post as a percentage of the number of people who have seen it.”

A “story” is classed as:

“liking, commenting or sharing your post, answering a question or responding to an event.”

This leads to “viral reach”, which Facebook defines as:

“the number of unique people who saw this post from a story published by a friend.”


Back to “how to make something go viral”…


While there have been a large number of articles written about HOW to make something go viral (including this one), and many brands and agencies try very hard to MAKE something go viral, there is no exact formula.

And most things that go viral catch the original sharer by surprise.

However after looking at the elements of this particular post, and considering other popular viral updates, here are my tips for what MAY help contribute to creating a viral post (results not guaranteed, please see your doctor if pain persists).

It’s not all about getting that “one” post “right”

While I said earlier that this Facebook Page’s engagement has been struggling over the last couple of years, it has been performing better over the past few weeks. Not to the same level as this particular post (or else it wouldn’t have come as such a surprise) but it has been improving, and I believe this is a contributing factor to this post’s response.

We spend considerable time reviewing our community and what types of content resonate with them. We test and refine our content strategy based on these results (while still posting content that is relevant to the brand and our online goals).

We all know about Facebook’s News Feed algorithm (and if you don’t, you should) and it basically works like this: the better response your content updates achieve organically, the more people will see them in the News Feed.

So the gradual improvement of our reach and engagement over the preceding weeks, will have helped give this particular post a strong platform to grow from.

Know your community, and what resonates with them

As I said above, you need to know what type of content resonates with your community.

Not just for “going viral” but creating a relevant and engaging online community, where you contribute value to your audience and the online conversation.

This particular online community is all about Active Travel, and we know that inspirational and motivational content works really well.

Like many communities, this one LOVES being inspired by the stories, images and words of others. It helps spur them along to identify and achieve their own goals.

Inspire emotions and get personal

We’ve long shared motivational quotes coupled with high quality and relevant photos.

However recently I thought to ask our professional athletes what their favourite motivational quote is, and I have been coupling it with a photo of the training or racing. It has added a personal touch to this same type of content update, that has given it a bit of extra oomph (that’s a technical term).


This particular quote had a great story attached to it as well, so there were two layers of emotions: those inspired by the inspirational quote itself, and then those attached to the story of how it came about.

Most things that “go viral” inspire emotion.

Positive or negative.

Our human nature encourages us to share things that make us:

  • laugh
  • happy
  • inspired


  • angry
  • shocked
  • indignant
  • sad

and we want to share that emotion and story with others.

Timing is important

Again, I do not believe there is a secret formula for the PERFECT time for a social media post. But timing is important.

This really relates to your own community and their online habits, and should be part of your overall content strategy, not just for posts you want to go viral.

It can also take some trial and error to discover those times that work best for your updates, and may change over time too.

However, you also need to consider the specific content you are sharing and what frame of mind people may be in when they see it (based on the day of week and time of day).

We consistently share these motivational quotes quite early on Saturday morning, because we know:

  • Much of our community check their accounts as soon as they wake up (like a lot of people do)
  • They tend to wake up early, especially for their training (running, cycling, swimming etc)
  • and who doesn’t like being motivated first thing in the morning!?

You need to give ALL updates the best chance of being seen – and noticed – by your community. Because even a viral post needs just that first like/comment/share to get started…

It takes just one person to get it started

Like I said, it takes just one to get it started. And if you haven’t seen this video about how to start a movement, you should:

I’ll admit we had an extra advantage on our side to this “one person” as we featured a specific person in the update.

For those athletes who have their own Pages and accounts, I always tag them in the update (and they are aware of these updates and when they are going out). This particular athlete doesn’t have her own Facebook Page, so I couldn’t tag her, but did mention her by name in the update (I’m also not Facebook Friends with her, so couldn’t tag her personally).

It wasn’t her who got it started though.

A friend of hers saw the post first, recognised her, then tagged her in the comments.

Then she shared it.

Then someone else did.

And someone else.

And so on.

Monitor results, appreciate them, but don’t try to artificially capitalise on them further

It was after about 3 hours that I realised this particular update had hit a (good) chord with our community. I’ve been managing these channels for a while, and know the general response we receive. So when it had received about 30 Likes in the first few hours, I took notice.

Now I know some of you may be scoffing that 30 Likes is nothing to get excited about. But you’re wrong.

It’s all relative!

This post received a far greater response than normal, FOR US! And it spread quickly through this specific community and beyond, with relevant people. And its organic reach was more than twice that of the Page’s own community.

*rant over*

So I very happily watched the response and reach grow over the day, and a couple of days afterwards, knowing that it would soon drop off (which it has). As with all viral updates, it eventually peters out and people move on to something else.

For us, there was no obvious opportunity or benefit from further “stoking the fire” so I was happy to let it run its course. For bigger (much bigger, think global) viral updates, there is sometimes time for other brands to jump on board and try and leverage it, but this should always be done with caution (though if really relevant, very quickly).

If there’s one thing worse than a brand trying to “make something go viral”, it’s trying to obviously or poorly capitalise on an unexpected viral outbreak.

How do you know if it was successful?

While I’ll admit I’m excited by the unexpected reach and engagement, I don’t call this a success, yet.

It is not a goal of our social media strategy to “make things go viral”.

Yes, one of our aims is to “reach and engage with our target communities” but our ultimate goal is to attract new customers and business enquiries.

Having a larger reach and exposure to new audiences may assist with this, but at this stage, we cannot attribute any new business enquiries to this post specifically (as an aside, make sure you have your tracking set up so you can monitor these results).

We did attract a number of new Page Likes, and clicks on the “Book Now” button on the Facebook Page that goes to the website, which is positive.

The fact that it hasn’t specifically generated any new business enquiries (yet) also doesn’t mean that it is a failure. It is simply a natural part of social media marketing for a high consideration purchase item.

So what comes next?

For us, it’s back to business as usual. Given the type of update, and quick but short response, we’re resuming regular programming, but definitely taking these learnings on board to help improve our future content updates.

If you have an update that unexpectedly “goes viral” I would also recommend adjusting your future posts if suitable.

For example, perhaps reschedule a post that was planned to go out soon afterwards to a later date, and give the viral post more time to do it’s thang.

Or if there is an opportunity to follow up on the original viral post to kick it up a notch, quickly create that and slot it into your content schedule.

A quick recap to wrap this up:

  • No one knows EXACTLY what will make something go viral
  • “Going viral” is often by accident and unexpected
  • Content that does go viral usually inspires a strong emotion from the audience (either positive or negative) that encourages them to share it
  • Focus on understanding your online community, and sharing really good, useful, relevant updates that provide value
  • Make sure you have adequate tracking set up to measure results (of all updates)
  • If one of your posts does “go viral” – YAY! Keep an eye on it, stoke it if you can, otherwise enjoy and learn from it

What do you think? Do you have any tips on how to make something go viral online?

Image via Raphael Schön on Flickr. View license here.
It has been cropped to suit the format of this post template and the homepage slider.

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