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What Makes Something Go Viral? Babies and Biebers, Not Ballyhoos

Viral content is defined by authenticity, humor and controversy; NYU Stern Business School professor Scott Galloway wrote an email to a student that hit the trifecta. He now uses the experience as a digital media strategy lesson.  

What’s the Big Idea?

In a previous post, social media expert Scott Galloway told us what the Web will look like when, as he predicts, Facebook becomes the Internet. The crucial question for every business will be this:

What makes someone want to share something?

Galloway’s answer: create something extraordinary. Perhaps that’s easier said than done, but beyond making something merely worth sharing, the million dollar question that every marketer wants to know the answer to is this:

What makes something go viral?

Strictly defined, a piece of viral content may be an image, video or advertisement that is circulated rapidly on the Internet. In other words, it spreads like a virus. If you have created a piece of viral content, Galloway says the best strategy is to let everything happen organically and not get in the way of it. After all, things that go viral tend to be raw and unproduced, and certainly are not planned.

Galloway knows that all too well. That was the case with an email he wrote to a business school student who was late to his class at NYU Stern School of Business, an email that has since been viewed over 11 million times.

See the full exchange below and watch Scott Galloway describe what happened here:

What’s the Significance?

Scott Galloway identifies the keys to a piece of content going viral:

Anything that legal approves cannot go viral. Why? The value proposition of viral content is voyeurism. You are allowing people to see something they are not ordinarily allowed to see, such as an email that a professor sent to a student upbraiding him. 

A dog on a skateboard is funny. And if Jimmy Kimmel finds something funny, he may even tweet about it
, like this Double Rainbow video which quickly became a Youtube sensation.

H + B = V

Throw a baby into the mix (No, please don’t literally “throw” your baby, even though a video of that, sadly, would go viral), and you’re minting viral gold.

In other words: Humor + baby = viral.

(Marketers have certainly picked up on this trend. Think E-Trade’s baby spokesman; Rocksmith’s Guitar Baby; Evian Water’s Roller Babies. The list is endless. And don’t forget about baby-faced Justin Bieber, who is a viral walking.)

Controversy and Debate
People like content that is controversial, “something that taps into some sort of social commentary right now,” says Galloway. In the case of his email exchange with a student, “we have two very credible, emotional arguments that came kind of full force together in a forum of an authentic email.”

Not only was the email authentic, it was highly topical, if not downright controversial: Galloway touched on the issue of “how expectant GEN Y has become, and how incredibly expensive education has become, and the fact that a lot of people think that we in education are sitting in ivory towers and not delivering the value we should.”

Read the exchange here:

Subject: Brand Strategy Feedback

Prof. Galloway,

I would like to discuss a matter with you that bothered me. Yesterday evening I entered your 6pm Brand Strategy class approximately 1 hour late. As I entered the room, you quickly dismissed me, saying that I would need to leave and come back to the next class. After speaking with several students who are taking your class, they explained that you have a policy stating that students who arrive more than 15 minutes late will not be admitted to class. As of yesterday evening, I was interested in three different Monday night classes that all occurred simultaneously. In order to decide which class to select, my plan for the evening was to sample all three and see which one I like most. Since I had never taken your class, I was unaware of your class policy. I was disappointed that you dismissed me from class considering (1) there is no way I could have been aware of your policy and (2) considering that it was the first day of evening classes and I arrived 1 hour late (not a few minutes), it was more probable that my tardiness was due to my desire to sample different classes rather than sheer complacency. I have already registered for another class but I just wanted to be open and provide my opinion on the matter.

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To which Professor Galloway responded:

Thanks for the feedback. I, too, would like to offer some feedback.

Just so I’ve got this straight…you started in one class, left 15-20 minutes into it (stood up, walked out mid-lecture), went to another class (walked in 20 minutes late), left that class (again, presumably, in the middle of the lecture), and then came to my class. At that point (walking in an hour late) I asked you to come to the next class which “bothered” you.

You state that, having not taken my class, it would be impossible to know our policy of not allowing people to walk in an hour late. Most risk analysis offers that in the face of substantial uncertainty, you opt for the more conservative path or hedge your bet (e.g., do not show up an hour late until you know the professor has an explicit policy for tolerating disrespectful behavior, check with the TA before class, etc.). I hope the lottery winner that is your recently crowned Monday evening Professor is teaching Judgement and Decision Making or Critical Thinking.

In addition, your logic effectively means you cannot be held accountable for any code of conduct before taking a class. For the record, we also have no stated policy against bursting into show tunes in the middle of class, urinating on desks or taking that revolutionary hair removal system for a spin. However, xxxx, there is a baseline level of decorum (i.e., manners) that we expect of grown men and women who the admissions department have deemed tomorrow’s business leaders.

xxxx, let me be more serious for a moment. I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:

xxxx, get your shit together.
Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades. It’s not too late xxxx…

Again, thanks for the feedback.
Professor Galloway

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @DanielHonan


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