Going Viral – how to make your story last

Once you go viral, you never go back. If only that was true!

What happens *after* social campaigns take off? When there’s a spike in interest around a particular issue, it can just as quickly fall out of fashion. So why does this happen and how can a social campaign continue to gain ground, even after going viral?

These lessons for viral altruism can help sustain anyone’s momentum on-line.

Sander van Linder explores why many viral social movements quickly lose momentum in an article in Nature magazine. He analyzed a few different campaigns, starting with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, in which donations peaked at $100 million in 2014. But in 2015, instead of donations increasing, they fell to 2013 levels, as seen in the lower right graph below. So, why did this happen?

The impact of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge on key indicators of public interest before, during and after the 2014–2015 campaign/ Credit – Nature Magazine

Some 28 million people joined in on the challenge, and the videos online had over 10 billion combined views.

But it’s important to dig deeper.

The campaign asked for people to be involved in 4 concrete steps:

1) Take part in the challenge

2) Mention ALS

3) Donate money

4) Challenge friends to do the same.

Reporter Robert Moore, who analyzed 1,500 videosof people dumping ice on their head, says doing these exact steps escalated people’s commitment to the cause. Of that sample, 74 percent mentioned ALS, but only a measly 20 percent said they gave a donation. He also found that people who mentioned ALS were five times as likely to donate as those that didn’t talk about the cause.

If people felt more committed, they were more likely to donate. But why didn’t these donations happen the following year? Sander hypothesizes that the Ice Bucket Challenge was more about the person in the video than about the cause . You have to get people emotionally involved to have a long term effect.  A challenge has its benefits in terms of going viral, but because it’s more about the user than the social movement, involvement tends to drop off quickly.

Sander uses an acronym SMART (Social influence, Moral imperative, Affective reactions, Translational impact) to explain what happens when movements are successful.

The ALS Challenge had momentum and reaction, but lacked moral imperative or connection with their story.

The SMART Social Cause.
The SMART Social Cause/Credit – Nature Magazine

An example of a social viral movement that has successfully gained momentum over time is Movember, a campaign devoted to bringing attention to male health by encouraging men to grow mustaches in November. I personally disliked this movement as I had a lot of male friends and ex-boyfriends through the years who looked horrible with mustaches, but I understand the message is important, and the viral nature is clear and sustained.

Credit – Movember Foundation

In 2014 the foundation said the campaign resulted in over 2.3 billion conversations, and that 75 percent of men involved had become more aware of potential issues facing their health. It resonated because men were telling their stories.But this movement didn’t happen overnight. It started in 2003 in Australia with 30 people and has grown to over 5 million global members. In 2014 the foundation said it had an annual growth rate of 100 percent.


So what’s the difference between Movember and the Ice Bucket Challenge? One difference cited by Sanders is that Movember is a yearly event, rather than a one-off challenge, so people know it will happen annually. Also, by growing a mustache, it helps bond men to the movement because it’s their lives that are part of the story.

Campaigns have to find a way to emotionally engage over a sustained period.

If people feel like their participation is valuable and their voices are important, then a movement will likely have a better chance of sustaining its virality.


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