When Videos Go Viral
Rajat Paharia Headshot

Can You Architect Virality? Absolutely. Here's How

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Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Most would disagree that it is possible to architect virality. But it is. As Kevin Allocca points out in his TED talk, "communities of participation" are a critical ingredient in the secret formula for making a video go viral. If you can inspire audiences to participate, you can create a viral experience.

So how do you actually encourage engagement with your content?

Here's how: tap into human motivation. Once you start to understand what motivates people to engage with your content - whether that's a video, a blog post or some other experience - you can begin to build vibrant communities of participation. And today, since almost everything we do involves technology, it's getting easier and easier to determine what those motivators are. We are all walking data generators, leaving little bits of information everywhere we go, a trail of clues, if you will, describing what we like and why we do what we do.

Smart businesses around the world are figuring this out, and they're creating ever-more engaging experiences for their customers by leveraging fundamental design principles, big data analytics and universal human motivators. They're motivating people through data using a process called gamification. But don't let that name fool you. Gamification isn't about playing games. It's about applying the data-driven techniques used by game designers to other digital environments to make them more engaging and drive experiences that go viral.

Entertainment companies have been pioneers in this space. For example, USA Network knew its detective comedy/drama Psych had a young, loyal fan base that was active online. So the network amped-up engagement by using an interactive web series, complete with mini-games, challenges, exclusive video and an app that integrated with the live TV show. Fans were encouraged to interact with one another - and with the characters of the show - and all the while, the data stream was captured and analyzed to inform even higher levels of engagement. Viewership across all the content soared. Within one year, website traffic increased by 30 percent.

Bravo also got in on the action when it created the online "Virtual Housewife Throwdown" to increase live viewership and viral awareness of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Fans were able to watch video clips, interact with other users, create their own housewife avatars and earn points to purchase virtual clothing, gifts and other accessories. By using the Throwdown to engage viewers, Bravo boosted tune-in audience size, while increasing page views and time on-site for episodes of Housewives.

When it comes to motivating audiences to engage with your content, here are the three key points you need to understand:

Attention is the new currency. What makes viral videos so fascinating to researchers, business executives and cat aficionados (!) alike is the simple fact that they capture so much attention. We are living in an age of distraction - and that typically means attention is scarce. Viral videos buck that trend. They capture attention, and in today's world, attention is increasingly valuable. Going forward, whoever can motivate that kind of attention will win.

The next big thing in motivating attention is big data. Huge new streams of information are now available because nearly everything we do is mediated by technology and therefore able to generate data. Companies already capture and analyze big data, and they use it to crowdsource, predict, benchmark, model, segment and target. Next, as you saw in the examples above, they're going to use it to motivate. Since we're all bombarded with distractions 24/7, businesses need to make the extra effort to motivate audiences to watch, to buy, to remain loyal.

Gamification brings it all together. Or, as I like to say, if big data and motivation had a love child, its name would be gamification. Gamification motivates people through data -specifically big data about user activity. Video game designers have known for years how to incentivize and motivate players by using the data their games generate. (Anyone who has "leveled up" knows what I'm talking about.) Now, that same kind of data is available outside of video games, and it can be used to motivate engagement -of customers, partners, employees...

Yes, communities of participation are critical in the formula for viral videos. But when you start leveraging fundamental design principles, big data analytics and what we know about universal human motivators, that element of the equation becomes less of a secret and more of a reliable way to drive a sustainable advantage.

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