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Opinion: Lessons in going viral take center stage at MSU

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Going viral on the internet is an elusive concept that many try and, more often than not, fail to accomplish.

One certainly can influence the ability of a social media post to go viral – generally defined as generating millions of views in a short period of time. But actually gaining those views is a topic of great discussion that hasn’t been fully defined or mastered. That’s especially true when you don’t already have an established audience. Celebrities, for instance, can easily tap into their fame to get their social media messages to the masses. For the rest of us, it’s not that easy.

It’s a mix of timing, using relevant keywords and hashtags, creating compelling content, using appropriate visuals and being unique, according to many blog posts on the topic of going viral.

In other words, it’s not an exact science. Oh, and did I mention good fortune?

It’s experimental, and even if you check all the boxes suggested by experts, it’s not guaranteed.

A video by a Missouri State University student recently went viral, offering insight on the concept.

Sydney Arlt, a student in MSU media and journalism professor Andrew Cline’s class, tweeted a video with the message: “My professor threw a party instead of having a final and no one showed up.” She ended the post with a crying emoji, as well as a broken heart emoji.

The video shows the student holding a holiday gift bag and cookie, with only four other students present. There are many empty chairs. It pans over to Cline, who is sitting at a desk full of ungifted holiday bags. He’s clearly distraught and slowly shakes his head.

That was Dec. 5, and as I write this on Dec. 11, the video has 7.75 million views, over 70,000 retweets and more than 342,000 likes.

Turns out, this viral video is a fake. In a tweet the day after the video went live, Cline said,  “This video was made as part of an assignment in MED130. It is fake (many clues). The point of the assignment is to ‘go viral’ in order to study viralness – especially as it plays on the emotions in the emotional medium of video.”

On Cline’s blog, Rhetorica, he further explains that in six years issuing the assignment, only one group went viral and another two had their videos picked up by aggregators.

“The biggest point here is the idea of going viral on purpose. There is great social, political and economic power in that,” he wrote on the blog. “I believe going viral is as yet not well understood. But media professionals need to try to understand it, critique it and do it … if possible.”

The incentive for going viral, he says, is the group of students get an automatic A for the semester.

Here are a few takeaways that may help in your own attempts to go viral.

1. Exploit suspension of disbelief.
Skepticism tends to fall away in the fast-paced world of social media.

That’s perhaps doubly true on Twitter, where content moves ferociously 280 characters at a time. It can cause users to act with their gut rather than their brain.

You can capitalize on the fact that in many cases where content went viral, followers suspended their belief to a high degree so they could be part of the moment. Exploit the lack of skepticism while you can.

2. Play on emotions.
As Cline says, video is an emotional medium. If used expertly, it can make users feel like they are there with you.

“If you’re not making a play to pathos you’re not doing it right,” Cline writes on his blog. “What the video beast wants more than anything – especially on social media – is emotion.”

In the case of the viral MSU video, Cline says two things happened: Students successfully manipulated the audience on an emotional level, and “the audience did a bad job of critically thinking about the message.”

3. Be relatable.
Consider how human beings actually behave. Does your potential viral media feel real?

Cline hinted at clues the MSU video was fake, but it was obviously convincing enough. He questioned why the “lonely professor” wouldn’t appreciate the students who did show up to the party, for instance.

In your own attempts to go viral, attempt to understand how a person would really act if your scenario was happening to them in real life.

There is no set way to go viral. You also have to be entertaining and provide value to the user on top of everything else. It’s difficult, and as Cline suggests, it’s important to ask why you want to go viral in the first place – and if you even should.

Springfield Business Journal Web Producer Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.

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