Understanding Unexpectedness is Key to Going Viral

Working on creating viral content is one of the most fascinating things I have ever done. It is a truly unique experience to work on something that you are trying to get millions of people to share and view in a relatively short time period. In his 2011 Ted Youth Talk, Kevin Allocca, YouTube's trends manager, shared the 3 reasons videos go viral. The one that has always seemed crucial to me is the third which is unexpectedness. (The other two are participation by the community and involving tastemakers who share the video)

Why is unexpectedness so crucial? Because it both fuels the other two into happening and is the only one that really goes into the creation of the viral content. Although there are ways to get participation and tastemakers involved through cameos and cross-promotion, the content must be unexpected in order for that to happen. When I first started making viral videos I also didn't have the network or the track record to call up a YouTuber and see if they wanted to collaborate. So in the beginning all I had to work with was being unexpected.

Unexpectedness is so important to creating viral content because it gets to the heart of why people share and how things go viral. With Kitten Air, Scott and I made a huge list of things that people wouldn't expect to see in slow motion (kids flying in and out of the frame, fat guys doing cannonballs, and kittens jumping through the air with only the sky in the background). Still after we shot the footage and realized the kitten footage was the most compelling we felt we needed something else. Scott had the brilliant idea of creating our own dubstep song to put the footage to and Scott & Brendo was born. It was amazing to see that by combining things people wouldn't expect to see together like a custom made dubstep song about kittens doing what they are doing in the footage we created something that no one was expecting. Because it was so unexpected we got shared by tastemakers we didn't even know like the creators of Lost, definitely a high point in my career.

In order to go viral* you must create a powerful enough emotion that people will take the time to share it with those people they know. The underlying emotion that you want to go after is creating something people aren't expecting in a positive way. That doesn't necessarily mean positive as in bubble gum and lemon drops but positive as in the emotion of unexpectedness creates a positive response. The video may scare them or be frightening but that emotion is done in an unexpected way that is exciting and prompts sharing. Through social media people can now instantly share anything with hundreds of people or even thousands of people. Tastemakers have so much power because they can share it with hundreds of thousands, millions or even tens of millions of people all at once. In order for that to happen though it has to be something people weren't expecting. If you share a video of a famous dancer doing an awesome dance routine that will most likely not go viral. It will be shared and viewed by those who regularly view dance videos but it won't break into that realm of massive virality.

Here is where unexpectedness gets tricky because it's constantly changing based on what the masses expect and don't expect. Many viral creators fall into the trap of thinking that being weird and being unexpected are the same thing. They think that if they are silly and wacky and just do really crazy things that it will get shared. But that rarely creates a feeling of being unexpected. It just creates a feeling of trying too hard.

Unexpectedness on the other hand gets people talking, makes people laugh or cry or be scared, and creates enough of that emotion that people weren't expecting that they are compelled to share, believing that their network will feel more of that emotion than they were expecting and see value in what they share as well. At the end of the day we all want to be viewed as even a mini-tastemaker and as someone in the know.

So you might be asking, "Okay what is the silver bullet?" The good news is that unexpectedness really is incredibly powerful in making things go viral. The bad news is that unexpectedness isn't something you can just add to a video really easily. Sometimes having a high production value is unexpected and sometimes having a low production value is unexpected. Sometimes doing something terrifying is unexpected and sometimes it isn't. In order to capture it you need to ask what are people expecting from this brand, this campaign or this video? Sorry to beat a dead horse but the key to creating viral content lies in creating a desirable emotion that is unexpected from your project. Understanding it takes time, effort, trial and error, intellectual honesty and a lot of other things. The good news is that it can be understood. The bad news is that if you don't take the time to understand it and you try to take a shortcut it's not going to work. This is anecdotal evidence but in my experience I know when something isn't working but I ignore that emotion because we are out of money, time, patience, etc. and starting over is terrifying. But if you take the time to understand what unexpectedness is and where it comes from you'll be able to drastically increase your chances of creating a truly viral moment.

*Technically going viral means it is shared again by more than 1 person who saw it shared the first time but in terms of going really viral or super viral it usually means that each time it is shared, it is shared again by 10, 100, 1000 or more people. That is why  tastemakers can make something go viral so fast because their audience trusts them to find the most unexpected content and they pay attention to the tastemaker so that they too can share it before their network sees it thereby gaining more social currency. This is why when things go really viral you often feel like everyone you know is posting it and it is coming at you from all angles. We all want to share it first and that unexpectedness is only going to last so long. All of these emotions are based in unexpectedness. Once it has been seen and gone viral the only people still sharing it are our Moms and Grandmas who find Charlie Bit My Finger and send you an email saying HAVE YOU SEEN THIS? It's also why viral videos have such a short shelf life.