Why do videos go viral?  The success of the Kony 2012 documentary has a lot of filmmakers and activists pondering this very question.  Racking over 50 million views on YouTube since Monday (and over 14 million views on Vimeo) the documentary is the quintessential example of a viral phenomenon.  Now, beyond the accuracy of the documentary, or controversies swirling about it, it's interesting to consider just how and why this video went viral.  In a recent TED talk called 'Why Videos Go Viral', YouTube’s trends manager, Kevin Allocca, boiled the answer down to three interacting factors -- factors we can see at play in the 'Kony 2012' phenomenon:

First, here's what Allocca has to say:

So a video with a quality of unexpectedness is taken up by participating communities and/or tastemakers who then proceed to propagate the video to other participating communities and tastemakers by way of their reactions, re-mixes or endorsements.  If the cycle of sharing and re-sharing takes off, it leads to a "viral" effect.

The Kony phenomenon, in case you haven't heard of it, was born out of an effort by activist group Invisible Children to raise awareness about the atrocities committed by Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, and to pressure international authorities to bring him to justice.  It all started with a half hour documentary highlighting the activists' take on the issue along with a call to action:

In an attempt to understand just how the video went viral, The New York Times' meta-news blog, The Lede, ran an interesting item this morning that attempts to provide a blow-by-blow account of the documentary's viral rise.  It's fascinating to see how the video's success illustrates much of Allocca's model.

The Participating Community

The organization had an existing group of followers built up over the course of 11 previous films and numerous campus tours, a community that was receptive to the organization's call to action.  As The Lede explains, the documentary reaches out to viewers and

explains the social media strategy, which includes getting people to enlist celebrities on Twitter, including Oprah Winfrey and others with large followings, to help get out the word about the film and Mr. Kony. The group also specifically asked people who viewed the film to share it with their personal networks on social media platforms so that “Kony’s name is everywhere.”

The Tastemakers

Spreading the word is precisely what the organization's very participative community did -- reaching out to friends, family, and tastemakers--

Soon, celebrities from the film and music worlds, including Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Diddy, Alec Baldwin and Olivia Wilde were joining in and posting links to the film on Facebook and Twitter. Many did so at the urging of their fans. And the hashtags #kony2012 #stopkony began to trend worldwide on Twitter.

This triggered a domino effect, gradually hitting other tastemakers with massive followings -- folks like Oprah Winfrey, Ryan Seacrest, Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian -- who then spread the word to their own participating communities.


The only factor the Lede piece doesn't address is the unexpectedness factor -- that mysterious mind-rub quality that speaks to folks and encourages them to share an item when they see it.  There are a lot of possible levels of unexpectedness for viewers encountering this video -- from folks who have never heard of child soldiers, to folks who expected the video to be a viral campaign for a movie or product instead of an Ugandan warlord's capture, to folks who wanted to feel they were part of a larger cause by sharing or clicking a "like" button.  Considering how many other documentaries cover similar or parallel ground, it still doesn't quite explain it.  This may be where the randomness of cultural mood and zeitgeist come into play -- perhaps if the film had been released two weeks from now, with a different mix of concerns preoccupying the public it wouldn't have had the same impact.

What does this all illustrate?

It shows the power of engaging with participating communities and tastemakers in an age when everyone with access to the internet can amplify a message.  People can create re-mixes, or simply share it with their friends and favorite celebrity.  Content creators don't have to rely on a "megaphone made of cash" to get their message out, but they do have to be part of communities that can help create a megaphone made of other people.

Does knowing about these factors guarantee a viral success?  No.  As pointed out, there is still an element of luck when it comes to why one item blows up in the popular culture while another never reaches beyond a small group of people.  Does knowing about these factors make it more likely your video will go viral?  Perhaps.  Without understanding the importance of message amplification, participating communities and tastemakers the activists could have left the "call to action" out of the documentary.  Instead it becomes this embedded prompt to continue sharing everytime someone watches the video.  Whether your video is picked up out of the blue by a tastemaker, or actively promoted by a willing community, by understanding who you're trying to reach you can better hone your strategy.

Do you think Allocca's model makes sense?  What do you think determines "unexpectedness"?  Let us know!