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"Finding content that engages people enough for them to pass it on is difficult."

Almost any content that attracts widespread attention is described as having ‘gone viral’. But just because your video has racked up millions of views on YouTube doesn’t necessarily mean your video went viral.

And herein lies the trouble – all too often, the term ‘gone viral’ is applied not on the basis of how content has spread but on the total number of views a piece of content has received.

What does it mean for content to ‘go viral’?

Consider the various ways a person may discover your content.

Some people may find your content through messages you have released. Email newsletters you have sent or online material you have sponsored, for instance, may draw people’s attention to your content and prompt them to go and view it.

These are examples of non-viral dissemination because the views arose from activities over which you had direct control.

Others may come across your content based on a friend’s recommendation or after seeing it appear in a friend’s social media feed. These are examples of viral dissemination because they occurred through activities outside your control.

Describing something as having ‘gone viral’ on the basis of content views alone therefore ignores how people actually discovered your content.

‘The message to marketers and content creators is simple,’ says Professor Mike Ewing from the Deakin Business School. ‘While you’re busy patting yourself on the back for the viral reach of your content, you might have just overlooked another component that was actually the key to the content’s success.’

So how can you tell whether your content really ‘went viral’?

The key is being able to measure the relative viral and non-viral contributions to the overall spread of your content. However, as Professor Ewing notes, ‘current ways of evaluating online content don’t adequately differentiate between these viral and non-viral inputs, and they need to.’

To address this issue, Professor Ewing and his colleagues developed a new set of metrics that accurately separates these viral and non-viral inputs.

These metrics, which were published in the Journal of Advertising Research, allow marketers and content creators to better evaluate how viral their content actually was.

As Professor Ewing explains, ‘it’s important that those working in marketing understand how they can accurately quantify their campaign results,’ Professor Ewing explains.

Controlling the contagion

Making content ‘go viral’ is a haphazard process; what worked once will not necessarily work again, and finding content that engages people enough for them to pass it on is difficult.

As the new metrics demonstrate, however, marketers and content creators can still achieve a large number of views for their content, even if that content is not especially engaging.

For example, focusing your efforts on non-viral dissemination will expand the number of people who see your content and may have the additional benefit of helping to kick-start viral modes of dissemination.

‘Using our new metrics,’ Professor Ewing explains, ‘marketers can better understand which elements of a successful campaign are in their control and which are truly and uncontrollably viral.’

Find out more about this study here.