Is there a secret to going viral? Gangnam Style and Harlem Shake analysed

By Chris Lee

In 2012, Korean pop (K-pop)star Psy’s phenomenon Gangnam Style became the first video on YouTube to be viewed one billion times, spawning a whole stream of imitation versions, known as memes. This year has already seen the Harlem Shake inspire more than 40,000 memes, so what is the secret recipe – if such a thing exists – for creating a viral video and what makes people intent on creating and uploading their own versions? NMK tapped into its contacts book to find out.

No exact science

According to Bobby Hui, executive planning director at brand consultancy G2 Joshua, there is no secret ingredient to creating viral content.

“If it were an exact science, the industry would have endured a lot fewer sleepless nights in the past few years,” he told NMK. “But there are ways to help increase the odds of content becoming an internet phenomenon.”

Hui credits Psy’s record label YG Entertainment with seeding the video in a bid to break him into the US market. Gangnam Style appeared on TV fairly early into its release and, while Hui believes the video achieved success largely on its own merits, months of planning ahead of launch paid off.

“The important point to remember when attempting to achieve viral success is the idea should come first and the medium second. You cannot create a ‘viral’, rather you seek to create a piece of content that goes viral. As such, viral content is not limited to a video, it can take the form of pictures, billboards or simply posted information on a social media site,” Hui said. “Great content, appropriate use of media channels, good timing and capturing the zeitgeist are the keys to ensuring the best chance of viral success.”

Toby Margetts, engagement executive at digital agency Beyond, agrees that making a video go viral is not easy, otherwise concepts such as Harlem Shake and Gangnam Style would cease to be noteworthy.

Margetts believes these two – and other virals – have thrived because they are easily customisable and championed by influencers.

“The double rainbow video was uploaded months before it went viral and remained dormant until Jimmy Kimmel tweeted it to two million followers,” he said. “The Internet is full of flukes, but adhere to this formula and you won’t go far wrong.”

Why meme?

The success of an individual video is one thing, but what inspires people and organisations to create their own versions, or memes – essentially cultures or contagious behaviours that spread from person to person – and upload them to the Web?

Xavi Izaguirre, social media director at consultants Total Media and trained social psychologist, believes that memes usually carry unwritten rules as to how they should be performed.

“The Harlem Shake is a clear example: the intro lasts 15 seconds, with a lone masked initiator dancing until everybody else joins in dancing with props,” Izaguirre said. “Memes like the Harlem Shake also appeal to the inner rebel within us all. We want to be innovative and different. Interestingly enough they also appeal to our need to conform as memes occur within the safety of a norm and the sense of belonging to a group.”

Izaguirre added that normative influence is created out of randomness, but online influencers such as 4Chan, Reddit and Tumblr, along with large companies creating their own versions, caused a domino effect in the digital space.

“Ultimately, we like norms because we are pattern-making machines that seek safety. However we also like innovation because it shows our leadership. A norm that breaks the norm is the most powerful behavioural driver one can find,” Izaguirre concluded. “Memes die when they become mainstream simply because they lose their innovative flavour. They lose their novelty. Also, normative influence is lost when certain people, i.e. uncool people, join in. Not only do we have normative role models, we also have normative anti-role models. This explains why Facebook and iPhones become uncool, the second our grandparents started using them.”

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