24 Nov 2015

What Makes Content Viral? A Look at Mashable’s Velocity App

Have you ever wondered how viral content becomes viral? Is there a secret formula? Do you need to sell your soul to the devil? For years marketers have been wondering how to make viral content for their organization, in hopes of gaining popularity (and ultimately, revenue).

The people behind the first viral stories wouldn’t have even realized their videos would be seen by thousands, if not millions, of people. The guy in the Numa Numa video filmed himself lip syncing and dancing, most likely unaware of the popularity it would ensue. ‘Chocolate Rain’ singer Tay Zonday uploaded his song onto YouTube not knowing CTV would rank it as the hottest viral video of summer 2007.

So how is a new app by Mashable predicting which specific content will become viral before it even gets viral?

This new app is called Velocity, and according to Mashable, it:

“…scours the social web, collecting lots and lots of data around how people engage with digital content. It then pulls all of that data back to Mashable, dumps it into [their] own predictive engine, and forecasts which content is about to go viral.”

How Does Content Go Viral?

Strictly defined, truly viral content “must have a viral coefficient greater than 1,” according to Kelsey Libert, VP of marketing at Fractl. But what does this mean, and how do we achieve this??

What we know is that popular stories are ones that evoke intense emotions, according to a 2011 study by University of Pennsylvania professors. According to Minda Zetlin, these stories need to capture the audience’s attention, engage them, and keep them interested. Once you have given your audience a reason to share it with their peers on a broad scale, you have successfully created viral content.


Looking at Viral Content Through Velocity

I analyzed 100 Velocity Alerts and dissected why they were flagged by Mashable’s system. The first Velocity Alert I looked at was “How ‘Furious 7’ said goodbye to Paul Walker: A scene-by-scene breakdown,” published on April 6, and the last one was ‘Google’s iconic logo is changing in a big way,’ published September 1. Although Velocity sends out an alert for every article they predict to go viral, not all of them are equal in virality. The article with the lowest number of shares only has 5.5k shares, whereas another has been shared 176.5k times.

The Results

Here is the breakdown of the results from my Velocity app analysis:


Just kidding. That’s just a viral pie chart meme. Here are the actual results:

  • All of the articles averaged around 20,500 shares
  • The median reached 13,100 shares
  • 34% mention today’s popular culture
  • 17% are about animals
  • 7% discuss technology

Among these articles, it is no surprise that today’s popular culture, such as movies, popular songs, and trends are frequently flagged. It surprises me that only 17 of the Velocity Alerts mentioned animals.

The top 6 most-shared articles, as of August 8th, in my analysis are:

  1. Dildo epidemic hits Portland power lines – 50.5k shares
  2. Jimi Hendrix was such a bad tenant, Ringo evicted him – 63.2k shares
  3. Alabama fishermen haul the catch of a lifetime: 2 cute kittens – 79.5k shares
  4. 100-year-old woman says the secret to a long life is ‘a lot of booze’ – 97.8k shares
  5. Retiring 60-year-old teacher completely slays ‘Uptown Funk’ dance with her students – 102.3k shares
  6. Giant inflatable Minion causes traffic chaos because there is no hope – 176.5k shares

These top stories seemed to just happen – there was no planning involved whatsoever to try to convince anyone to buy anything. The Alabama fisherman article wasn’t part of a marketing campaign for a pet store. A liquor company didn’t pay off the 100-year-old woman to get more customers. Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson didn’t need the help of a 60-year-old teacher to promote their song. Nobody had spent hours and hours to plan these viral stories.

Surprise Insights

It also surprises me that ‘100-year-old woman says the secret to a long life is a lot of booze’ (published on June 6, 2015) reached the Top 3, whereas ‘110-year-old woman’s secret to a long life: 3 Miller High Lifes per day’ (published August 4, 2015) only reached 13.8k shares, several thousand views short of average. These two articles were published 59 days apart.

According to the article Mashable published, Agnes Fenton (the 110-year-old woman) already gained national attention before her 105th birthday. NorthJersey.com covered her story, and has even proclaimed her birthday as “Agnes Fenton Day.” On the other hand, the Velocity alert for Pauline Spagnola (the 100-year-old woman) only has 3 sentences about her birthday, along with a short, 20-second video from News Channel WNEP.


Is it because of the different format that Spagnola’s story had more shares? Is video format more likely to become viral? Who knows! We can’t say what it is that makes one article more viral than another, especially in similar topics like this.

To Recruit or Not Recruit McDreamy

After working on this project for 3 months, I have realized that viral content isn’t planned. Velocity’s past 100 alerts are all relatively unrelated to one another. You can help augment content’s popularity with celebrities such as Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell, but you can’t force virality if you tried. Content only becomes viral when the audience perceives it as candid and authentic. The videographers of ‘Charlie bit my finger’ or ‘The Sneezing Baby Panda’ didn’t plan for their videos to go viral… it just happened without their involvement.


What Does This Mean for Content Marketers?

The term ‘viral content’ may be sexy and exciting, however unattainable. Despite this, there are many lessons learned from this journey: whatever Velocity uses in its formula to predict virality we’ll never know (at least for now). So where does this leave content marketers? You’ll have to rely on strategic research to base your content development efforts off these questions, rather than an elusive ‘viral’ status:

  • What topics drive traffic to your site?
  • What questions do your customers have about your products/services?
  • Is your content relevant to your customers’ wants and needs?
  • Is your content on the appropriate social media platform for your target demographic?
  • What format does your audience engage with most?

Although you might not have content that moves your audience to share at a viral level, you’ll at least have potential customers and leads that are left satisfied by having their questions answered and their needs addressed.

Play Content Moneyball

Instead of aiming for to create a piece of content that goes ‘viral,’ the better perspective is to play Content Moneyball. The idea here is that the odds for hitting a grand slam (creating viral content) is crazy high: 1 in 1,691 at bats. We already have seen that viral content can’t be predicted or easily created – and for businesses focusing on a content marketing model, employing the likes of celebrities and cute kittens may not be possible, or even in their best interest.

Instead, focus on where you can make the most progress: consistently getting on base.

This happens much more frequently than grand slams – 1 in 4 at bats to be exact. Focus on consistently producing quality content, optimized for search intent, to get on base. Brainstorm and research hundreds of topic ideas so you can embody the motto: “Done is better than perfect.” After all, the more content you produce, the more pages the search engines will index, the more traffic you get, the more leads you generate, and ultimately the more business you gain.


Viral content is fun, entertaining, and oftentimes heartfelt. It is also unpredictable and not easily manufactured. Just keep producing content without the aim to get the grand slam. It’s not the main goal ultimately, but who knows? You might just hit it out of the park.