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Eight characteristics that guarantee your campaign goes viral

13th May 2013

How do you create a global online sensation? In its study looking at “How Stuff Spreads” strategic insight agency Face identifies key components that make things go viral. Looking at the spread on Twitter of two global phenomena, Gangnam Style and Harlem Shake, Face proposes eight common characteristics that led to them becoming viral hits, generating thousands of spin-off versions and billions of views:

1. Bursts and Rises: The Burst model is bottom-up: the variations are more powerful then the original seed and there’s no clear leadership or narrative. The meme (clip that is passed electronically from one Internet user to another) relies on community relevance to spread. This is true of Harlem Shake. The Rise model is top-down: the original seed is always stronger than its variations and has a clear leader dictating the narrative. Bursts spread widely more quickly but don’t endure. Rises spread more slowly and less widely, but they tend to endure because the meme has a focal point. This is true of Gangnam style. Chose your model of virality and plan accordingly.

2. Triggers. Whatever the model, virality is triggered by surprise, cultural relevance to a community, and endorsement by a leader or the media.

3. Waves. Whatever the trigger, virality is not a steady affair; it spreads in waves and spikes.

4. Communities drive viral spread. Way more so than influencers.

5. Glocality. Memes transcend geography, but a successful meme needs a balance of both local relevance and global appeal.

6. Leadership. A meme needs a focal point to live longer. Virality is only sustained through a strong narrative and leadership.

7. Slow and spikey wins the race. Weak ties and communities sustain for weeks, but they don’t give you scale in the short term. Top-down media and celebrity endorsement gives you instant scale, but burns out within a couple of days by decreasing the shareability of the meme.

8. Memes are like currency: you need to balance supply (or accessibility) and inflation. In order to achieve high shareability and high popularity the meme supply has to be expansionary, but strategically controlled so that it doesn’t negatively affect its shareability. This at the same time gives the meme the scale that can trigger and sustain exponential growth.

The phenomenon Gangnam Style, a “top-down” meme lasted five times longer than the “bottom-up” Harlem Shake. Francesco D'Orazio, chief innovation officer at Face, has some theories about the incredible success of Gangnam: “Whereas Gangnam Style offered a strong top-down narrative with an easily identifiable leader in Psy, Harlem Shake had a more distributed narrative with no real leadership and guidance outside of the format. Consequently it didn’t succeed in creating a ‘habit’ that would outlive the interest from the local and community networks who where the real engine behind this meme.”

D'Orazio, also points out that making something easily shareable, doesn’t guarantee that it will be popular: “While Harlem Shake turned out to be three times more shareable than Gangnam Style, it still ended up being four and a half times less popular in terms of the number of unique users sharing it. It is a difficult balance for a meme to strike. Popularity doesn't mean shareability, and shareability doesn't imply popularity. Community drives shareability but doesn't give you scale (popularity). Top-down influence drives scale (popularity) but kills shareability. While shareability is a key requisite of virality, scale is what enables and sustains exponential growth.”


This study by Face focused on how two memes spread online: Gangnam Style vs Harlem Shake. Using Pulsar TRAC’s Content Tracking technology, it was possible to track any social media conversation containing a specific URL and analyse who was talking about it, gateways and hubs, topics of discussion, geography of the discussion and key channels.

To find out how Gangnam and Harlem became global memes. The study looked at how the top five versions of each video were shared on Twitter, looking at eight dimensions of each meme:

1. Shape: Number of shares per video, over lifetime of the meme

2. Lifespan: Number of consecutive days where people shared the meme 500+ times

3. Popularity: Number of unique users sharing the meme over its lifetime

4. Shareability: Total Twitter shares per each million of YouTube views

5. Globality: How international was the meme?

6. Amplification: How influential were the people who shared the meme

7. Variation: How much did attention to the meme vary day-by-day?

8. Diffusion Network: Hubs and nationalities who drove the spread of the meme

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