Viral Content 101: What You Need to Know About “Going Viral”

By Matter

“How can we make our content go viral?”

If PR professionals gained a dollar each time this question was asked, maybe we wouldn’t be here. Kidding, of course! However, viral is a buzzword that we all hear frequently and, to avoid overuse, it’s important to understand what “going viral” truly means.

Viral is an adjective meaning “quickly and widely spread or popularized especially by means of social media,” according to Merriam-Webster. The example given is a viral video. Notice that the definition neglects to mention public relations as a means to help make content go viral. We’ll get to why later, but first let’s breakdown how content becomes dubbed as viral.


Did you see that golden retriever doing backflips?

There is no formula or concrete reason to help determine why any content becomes viral. Common drivers of viral content are entertainment value and sharer’s social influence. A video that demonstrates a popular recipe that’s useful to a wide audience or shocking content brings forms of entertainment to many different groups of people, allowing them to become popularized. Social reach is also a huge factor because the more eyeballs content has on it, the easier it can be shared with others.

Alternatively, sometimes viral content happens accidentally, but probably not so accidentally once you think about it. For example, TIME developed a roundup of the top viral videos from 2017, and the BBC Skype interview where a professor’s children famously interrupt the interview made the list. Of course, the professor probably would have liked his interview to become viral so others could learn more about the news topic at hand, but it was the simple, pure entertainment brought by his children that made it a viral sensation. What happens during the video is easily understood, it evokes positive emotions from others and it appeals to a universal audience – an ideal combination for viral content, accident or not.

In the case of the BBC interview, the professor’s main goal was to promote himself via a television interview in hopes others might contact him as a resource. Moving forward in his career, while still viewed as a viable contact, he probably has to endure jokes about his kids joining future interviews. The professor is his own brand in this circumstance. Once people connect a brand with a specific feeling or event, it’s hard to disassociate from that; and that’s where PR agencies step in.


PR agencies and viral content: Where the two intersect

PR agencies help companies spread awareness through a variety of different avenues. Most importantly, PR agencies are there to help companies develop the right messages and get them to the right audience – whether the client needs ongoing brand awareness, a rebrand project or help with a crisis.

Longevity is key to a successful PR campaign – something that viral content lacks. A piece of viral content is best consumed and shared in the moment, and if a brand’s content should go viral, they need to either keep up the momentum or shift strategy.

Momentum and strategy is where a PR agency can better offer its expertise. For example, the professor from the BBC interview could hire a publicist to share his value propositions with other media outlets and book proper interviews moving forward. This strategy would better keep up media momentum for the professor, increase his visibility to help separate himself from his viral video and rebuild his brand.

All in all, if your content goes viral as a result of an integrated PR campaign – fantastic! But, please use caution when making viral content your number one priority if you’d like your brand to live a long, fruitful life in the media and on social.