Digital culture has evidently transformed how we all live our day-to-day lives. In particular, we have all witnessed the constant stream of viral challenges, trends, videos, and memes that have hit our screens. Whether it’s on social media or in the real world, viral content is now big a part of our culture.

One of the biggest appeals to these trends is the reaction of the person participating in the challenge. Whether it’s the sudden shock of cold water from the Ice Bucket Challenge or the intrigue of the viral FaceApp craze, challenges and crazes nearly always perform better when there’s a clear emotion that is triggered in the participant.

But many marketers often struggle to produce their own viral content. To get a better understanding of why some pieces of culture spread and others don’t, it helps to take a look at the history of viral content, what makes it go viral, and how that virality impacts the real world.

A History of Viral Challenges and Trends

Viral challenges are often less about the challenge itself, and more about participating in the massive inside joke, or sometimes as part of a serious cause that people want to raise awareness of. Social media, online video, and the culture around digital have given rise to this new type of phenomena.

How Social Media Impacted Viral Content

cinnamon powder

While the word “viral” is a moniker of the digital age, cultural phenomena and trends have always been around. Before the internet, crazes were common in fashion, sports, film, music, and more. People have always gravitated towards the sense of community that comes with these trends. And these fads and trends are a big part of cultures.

The internet has only made these trends travel faster and more ubiquitous. As digital communications have worked their way into society, so too have a new type of viral trend. Creative videos, email chains, and forums all fueled the rise of these viral challenges.

One of the first examples of a viral video came in 1996 – a CGI animation of a dancing baby spread via email. There is no specific view count for this clip since it was not hosted on a centralised platform. However, it worked it’s way beyond the computer screen into pop culture, appearing in television and movies. While viral videos of today have billions of views, the cultural impact of this early viral video was a standout for the time it came out.

The Advent of Social Media

Starting with MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook, viral content became a much more common part of life. Memes, challenges, and trends spread in a social setting, and the instant feedback enabled on social media platforms are the perfect environment for things to travel quickly. Today, the majority of viral challenges come from these social media platforms, with shared content, like buttons, and content feed algorithms helping to spread these challenges.

Before they were called “challenges,” platforms like Facebook and Twitter housed these viral trends. As smartphones gave people greater access to photography and video, people could add their own attempts at the challenge, even if they didn’t use the term “challenge.”

One of the earliest uses of the words “viral challenge” was with the Milk Challenge, having been around since at least 2004. However, a more prominent example of a viral challenge was the cinnamon challenge. According to Google Trends data, nearly all of the search volume for this trend occurred in June of 2012. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook facilitated the meme, showing the power that these platforms have over viral content.

How Online Video has Evolved

The Mannequin Challenge

Prior to the mid-2000s, online video was tough to use, with minimal streaming options. Today, more millennials exclusively stream video content through platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat than those that watch traditional TV. Since 2005, this has lead to the rise in viral challenges, where participants are able to upload videos of themselves doing the challenge.

Online video has a 2-fold impact on the spread of viral content. It provides a platform for people to view the challenge while also allowing participants to show others their own attempt.

Challenges are almost exclusively spread through video, like with the popular Mannequin Challenge. Once online video became more accessible, more and more users participated in challenges.

How Something Becomes Viral

There are a few factors that contribute to something going viral. While there are plenty of examples of viral trends and challenges that have spread organically, more often than not there’s some sort of algorithmic direction that impacts how many people see the content.

The Impact of Culture

Sometimes, viral content gets there through word-of-mouth. These are the most explosive phenomena, often showing up out of nowhere before disappearing after a few weeks or months. This is how most image and text-based memes spread. Viral challenges like the Cinnamon Challenge spread this way. These trends are usually short-lived and are often just the result of people sharing, participating, and engaging with content.

According to Jeff Bullas, viral content needs to have the right combination of indicators in order to be shared. The most successful viral videos are a mix of funny, touching, surprising, engaging, and authentic, among other things. Otherwise, people won’t engage with the content, even if social media platforms put it in front of users.

Social Media Algorithms

Social Media Algorithm

Algorithms also play a huge part of what makes content viral. Because these viral challenges spread through social media platforms, the algorithm that dictates who gets to see the content. When something becomes truly viral, it isn’t just engagements that spread the content. Platforms will often show the content to new users, like within Trending pages or in searches. Even if something has the perfect setup to go viral, it needs to be put in front of the right users on these social media platforms.

The Support of Celebrities and Influencers

Celebrities and influencers play a distinct role in the spread of viral memes and trends. They have a significantly larger audience, so when they participate in a challenge they, of course, expose even more people to it. In addition, the most influential influencers really can drive high volumes of people to take part in these challenges. Viral trends like the Ice Bucket Challenge gained so much steam because of the sheer volume and influence of the celebrities and influencers that participated.

Other times, celebrities and influencers can be the subject of challenges. Although it was a very controversial challenge that had a negative impact on young people, one that exploded in popularity came as a result of the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge. This was a challenge whereby participants would try to make their lips look as puffy as those of the fashion icon.

The Importance of Viral Content in Culture and Marketing

Viral content has a pretty significant impact on both cultures and the way we market to audiences. From the way people act in their daily life to their purchasing decisions, viral challenges have a number of both conscious and unconscious impacts on us.

A Sense of Community

People want to belong to their community. Social media makes that sense of belonging more accessible than ever before. Laughing at viral videos, participating in internet challenges, and sharing content can make any group feel like home.

Social media platforms put brands, influencers and users in the same space. This means that viral challenges aren’t just for average users. Brands and celebrities alike can participate in the overall community, helping forge more authentic bonds between users and businesses.

Viral Marketing

Viral marketing is becoming one of the cornerstones of a strong digital marketing strategy. It requires valuable insights, genuinely engaging content, relatable influencers, creative individuals and a clear strategic plan. However, more often, it’s been brands that have been capitalising on challenges rather than creating them.

Understanding the mechanics of viral content is essential for digital marketers trying to get an edge. As more culture moves from the offline world into the digital world, we’ll see even more of these challenges, providing plenty of opportunities for brands to capitalise on them.

The Ups and Downs of Viral Trends for Business

While viral challenges are often just for fun, some have an impact on businesses. Whether a company inspires them or even starts one directly, viral challenges can do a lot to help a brand. However, they can harm brands in the wrong circumstances. There are a few notable examples of viral trends from the past decade that were company-related.

How They Help

Kylie Jenner is one of the world’s youngest billionaires largely thanks to her lip kit, which was released in November of 2015. Within 4 years of release, she had become the wealthiest of the Kardashians and Jenners. Coincidentally, 6 months before the launch of her lip kit, the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge had taken the internet by storm. Participants would put a cup or glass over their lips and inhale to make their lips look as puffy as Kylie Jenner’s. The viral challenge undoubtedly had an impact on the success of the product’s launch.

Another example of an incredibly beneficial viral challenge was the Ice Bucket Challenge. The ALS Association started the challenge in order to raise awareness for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in August of 2014. The trend raised over $115 million for the association and helped provide vital research to help support the prevention of the disease. The virality resulted in donations and an incredibly positive impact for those suffering from the disease.

How They Go Wrong

Of course, it isn’t always good for business to inspire a viral challenge. Take the Tide Pod challenge, for example. This challenge jokingly called for participants to ingest the eponymous detergent pods. Poison-control centres had been seeing an average of around 12,000 calls per year for Tide Pods since 2013. The rate didn’t increase much while the challenge was popular in 2017, but there was significant blowback for Proctor and Gamble. They dedicated marketing spend to discouraging challenge participants rather than on brand building.

Similarly, this year’s Bird Box challenge saw a teen in Utah crash their vehicle while driving blindfolded. This is another mock-challenge based off of the Netflix original film, Bird Box. The challenge requires participants to drive blindfolded and was a joke rather than an actual challenge. Again, people weren’t blaming Netflix for the incident, but they did have to allocate marketing spend to recover from the harm to their brand.

Their Overall Impact

As we can see from these examples, viral challenges can be a boon or bust for business. When the challenge is controlled, capitalised on, or embraced, as with the Ice Bucket Challenge or the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge, they can provide great exposure and positive buzz around an entity. But if the challenge is uncontrolled or unplanned, as with the Bird Box Challenge or the Tide Pod Challenge, the associated brand can suffer.

More often than not, viral challenges aren’t under the control of a brand or business. But that doesn’t mean that the brand can’t take advantage of the challenge. With the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge, it was often used to make fun of the celebrity, rather than support her. Still, she used it to her advantage in the timely launch of her cosmetic line, focusing, of course, on lips.

The Convergence of Influencer Marketing and Viral Challenges

There is certainly a place for viral challenges in your future marketing strategy. Just like any participant in a viral trend, influencers can take part in any online challenge, incorporating it into a brand-consistent strategy. It’s possible to start a trend, and it’s easy to participate in one. By carefully integrating challenges into your influencer marketing and social media strategy you can help fuel the user-generated content that positively impacts your business.

Starting a Trend

It’s difficult to start a trend, but very possible. There are varying definitions for what counts as “viral,” but it doesn’t always have to be a global craze. Even getting thousands of people to engage in a challenge can be seen as a success, depending on the budget allocated.

Viral content tends to get more engagement, and doesn’t always have to be a challenge. You’ve probably already created unique hashtags that have gone somewhat viral. Take the travel influencer marketing industry, for example. Influencers have pushed travellers to specific ‘Instagrammable’ destinations to capture photos, which is a form of a viral trend.

Participating in a Challenge

Starting a trend is possible, but can be elusive. Participating in an internet challenge, however, is much easier. These challenges often get more engagement than an ordinary post and get more visibility since they have higher search volumes. Take Dove’s attempt at the mannequin challenge. By having women pose next to mannequins dressed like them, the brand was able to evoke the brand’s body-positive attitude. You can also get your influencers to participate and incorporate brand-consistent messaging, product placements, or other calls-to-action within their challenge attempts.

Perhaps equally important to participating in the right viral trends is opting out of the wrong ones. Many viral challenges are jokes, disrespectful, or otherwise harmful. The recent ice cream challenge is the perfect example of this. It called on participants to lick ice cream products at the grocery store and put the product back. These types of infamous challenges are quite common, so it’s important that influencers working with a brand aren’t contributing to these types of challenges.

Understanding Viral Challenges and Trends

Viral challenges are less about completing an impressive feat and more about participating in the online community. Just like any social clique is going to have a rolling set of inside jokes, so too will internet culture. Challenges are just another meme that anyone can participate in. They often show up organically, and usually spread with the help of social media feeds.

Since the sudden rise of user-generated content in the mid-2000s, viral challenges have become an indispensable part of digital culture. Whether they help or harm a business is often up to how a brand handles the attention. Ultimately, virality is about participation and building that sense of community more than anything else.


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