Something going “viral” has only been a term in use for only the last 2 decades (Kaplan, A.M. & Haenlein, M. (2011)), the reason it’s used is because when a video is uploaded and shared around the internet very rapidly it spreads in the digital space much like a real-life infection or virus spreads in real life, hence why we refer to certain YouTube videos as “going viral”. But with over 300 hours of YouTube content being uploaded every minute, why does a specific looped 30 second video of a pop tart cat running through space become the video of choice that gets spread across the internet to become a cultural phenomenon?

Nyan Cat

At the time of this writing, the video is just over 5 years old and has sprouted over 134 million views (and I am guilty of having a jazz Nyan Cat playing in the background the entire time I spent writing this post). Averaging that out over the last 5 years the video received (and continues to receive) over 73,000 views every single day! If I told you a disease was infecting 73,000 people every day for the last 5 years and continues to do so you’d consider it a global pandemic. This ties in with modern memes that are instantly recognised as part of Internet culture. Simply look through your own social media channels and look through comments and posts and you may be very familiar with some of the following:


Even official businesses are using these too. How does this sort of thing spread? What makes it so special compared to the rest of the content available on the Internet? In this TED talk Kevin Allocca explains there to be three main factors that form the basis of viral phenomena: tastemakers, communities of participation and unexpectedness. Tastemakers are essentially those who ‘make’ the general public ‘taste’ a video on the Internet, bringing it to much large number of people so that the video can spread.

The second key point (communities of participation) refers to the unique characteristic the digital space has as a media platform. Unlike other forms of media (as I have discussed in previous posts) digital media is not restricted to one-way communication. Anybody and everybody on the Internet has the ability to create content and talk back to content creators and actively collaborate not only with other viewers but also the creator themselves. This gives people the unique ability to actively talk about a particular video and possibly change it in some way to integrate it as part of social culture and participate in its evolution all on the one platform.

Finally the unexpectedness factor comes into play. Out of the sheer amount of video content upload every minute, only the most unique and unexpected videos become viral. These viral videos often make no sense when you try to explain them to someone who doesn’t use the Internet, a pop tart cat flying through space, a baby laughing at a camera, a dancing banana, a ceiling cat?

Any business would evidently see a lot of potential if they could capitalise on this viral phenomena, however it’s important that the content that is provided to the Internet does not become viral for the wrong reasons. Dove’s #choosebeautiful campaign last year is an example of how to do it well. It is important to keep a viral campaign in line with the overall strategy of the brand as it keeps a consistent message with not only existing customers but also the intended target audience. Dove’s campaign emphasises looking and feeling beautiful and is related to the overall strategy Dove as a brand is pushing towards feeling more beautiful. This can backfire however if the viral campaign sends the wrong message. A recent example is Malaysia Airlines’ “Bucket List” campaign, that was intended to be a campaign that allows travellers to tick off holiday destinations and maximise their vacation time. Instead of being well known for providing convenient flights to all desired destinations, the campaign became well known for being incredibly insensitive due to the “Bucket List” being associated with death, and considering the recent tragedies of Flight 370 and Flight 17, it was considered a very poor choice of words for a marketing campaign. This can cost a company millions in sales from a damaged reputation and requiring a sincere apology and a long struggle to attempt to rebuild customer loyalty.

In short, viral campaigns are a great way to spread a message very quickly, however it is easy to become short-sighted and overlook the potential for it to become well-known for the wrong reasons. Are there any examples you can think of where viral marketing has gone horribly wrong? What would you have done instead? Let me know in the comments!


Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M. (2011). Two hearts in three-quarter time: How to waltz the social media/viral marketing dance. Business Horizons54(3), 253-263. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2011.01.006


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