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Going viral is the holy grail of social media marketing.

It’s that special bit of marketing divinity that can take a low budget piece of content and rake in more views than a Carte Blanche special edition. Whilst there most certainly is a formula to creating content primed to go viral, many marketers don’t fully understand the mechanics of the term ‘viral’. Having a good handle on the mathematical framework behind viral content will help when earmarking special pieces of content in your editorial calendar.

What does the term “going viral” mean?

In it’s simplest form ‘viral’ can be defined as a term that represents a particular ‘rate of sharing’. To understand rate of sharing, we need to have a look at coefficients. Don’t panic, it is actually quite simple! A coefficient is a number used to multiply a variable.

Viral exists through having a coefficient of more than 1. So, if someone shares a piece of content to their network and more than 1 of their friends or followers shares it again, its being passed on at an exponential rate during that defined period of time.


In the first graph we can see the difference in growth curves between pieces of content that have a viral coefficient greater than 1. If we begin at one user who sends a piece of content to eight people, but on average only 1.2 share it, then we can see after ten hours down a chain (the X axis) the number of people who are sharing by this stage is about five per hour. This is insignificant when compared to the 1.6 coefficient, where by the 10th hour, the number of people sharing the content is nearly 69. In both cases, it is clear that viral messaging take time to develop, although for the 1.2 coefficients the viral is taking much longer.

This graph works on linear increases in the amount of sharing – assuming the level of sharing is consistent per hour. Of course, online, such sharing is unlikely to be consistent per hour – if a share reaches a particularly influential person, then the coefficient may be considerably changed.


In the example above, the content has reached a significant influencer, who has shifted the rate of sharing (viral coefficient) from 1.2 to 8. This is the catalyst for the viral to shift gears. From then on the number of shares per hour increases rapidly as more people see it. By the 10th hour, however, a piece of information counters the content and consequently fewer people share it. The message has a viral coefficient of less than 1 and the rate of sharing descends back to earth.

So going viral is possible and it is possible to plan for, as long as you use the mathematical foundation to prime your content to do so. As we have seen the two most important variables in rapidly increasing and decreasing your viral coefficient is a significant influencer and a counter piece of content.