Home / Business / When Things Go Viral – Interview with Brian Hallett
Brian Hallett
Photo/ Brian Hallett

When Things Go Viral – Interview with Brian Hallett

We sat down with Brian Hallett, professional photographer image‐maker, and IE Professor to learn more about what makes online branded and campaigns go viral, the interview was done during his visit to Georgia, Tbilisi.

In the Masterclass you talked about viral content one of the most mysterious and misunderstood aspects of the entire digital revolution, what do we mean when we use the term “viral content”?

When we talk about commercial Viral Content, which is a very specific kind of information flow, it’s not just the content itself, it’s also how the content is shared. So when we say that something goes viral, it basically has several different characteristics. We would think that viral events are always events that are shared among many users. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Let’s take, for example, Beyonce who has 22 million followers. If she posts a photo and two million of these followers like her photo, that’s not actually a viral event, because it’s not being shared, that’s a popular event. So we should distinguish between what’s popular and what’s viral. So the first aspect, is that it has to be shared, which is an important aspect. The second aspect is that it has to jump from network to network. This means that it is actually shared across many different networks. But virality is really not about numbers. You can have a viral event that has ten thousand views or can have a viral content that has 10 million. You can have a viral event in Tbilisi or a global viral event, and they both have same characteristics. The other thing that viral events do is that they are very fast. In other words, they reach what’s called their inertia of diffusion, or the “Tipping Point” which is where you get enough people sharing it and it explodes very fast. So most viral events actually happen in a very short period of time.

What factors play an important role in creating content that generates social media interest?

You know, we use the term “disruptors”. Disruptors are the people who do things in new and surprising ways…it does not mean necessarily you do something completely innovative, it’s not only that. It’s doing something that we traditionally are doing one way and we then find a completely new, surprising way. I use the word surprising because I think that one of the things that make human beings interested in something is when a thing surprises them. On the other hand, if something is too surprising, too different we do not understand it, because it’s too shocking.

So there’s a combination of something that is familiar to us but is done in a new way and I’ll give you an example: yesterday I was in Kiev, Ukraine and went to the place called UnitCity. They have a school there where they are teaching coding, application design, and many other different subjects. They told me they have seven hundred students…and yet no teachers. Students carry out projects proposed by the pedagogic team and are free to organize their own time. The school is open 24/7. Students help each other and investigate through the Internet for solving their projects. For me, this information was completely disruptive, and here I am sharing it with you. This is what happens…we see these remarkable, disruptive events, products, and we want to talk about them. And why? Well, each of us is a brand, each of us has the self to present of self which is what we want to share with the world and so why do we talk about certain things? You may be interested in a certain subject or matter, you may be interested in journalism or psychology, for example, and you have your own brand. So what happens is that you’re going to share a particular kind of content which shows who you want to be to the world. So, social sharing is really about a presentation of who you are. I think those are some of the factors I look at…sort of disruptive and surprising events and thinking of doing things in a new, different way, that’s the key.

What is the most important thing that someone should consider when creating viral content?

When create content, we often create it for our one audience. And the difference is that when you create viral branded content, you do not want to think about just your immediate audience. If you create something only for one particular audience, people will see it and they might like it, but why would they share it?

So what you need to do is…not create things just for your audience. You need to create things for audience’s audience, and your audience’s audience’s audience. So you need to think beyond just the immediate audience you have, you need to talk about who their distant audiences are. If I show you something, you might think it’s really cool and you might like it, but you are only going to share it with your audience if you believe your audience is going to find it interesting. And the same thing happens to them, and so on and so forth. And that’s how the spreading occurs.

So, if we look at international broadcast advertising, when we are creating something for television, print, radio or outdoor advertising, we have a specific audience in mind. For example, in the 50’s and 60’s we thought- we’re creating clothing detergent ad and there is a soap opera at 4 o’clock. We would know that women between the ages 34-45 would be watching this particular advertising – this is the traditional way of thinking. They will be watching the show and so we will make this ad and show it to them, but there was no need to share it. They might talk about it, which means we might be able to create word of mouth (connections) right? But what happens today is, when I want to create a viral event, I am going to create something which a particular segment of society would not only watch, but would actually share. Now, who is their audience? Well, their audience is other women, their friends, family, and connections. You need to think far beyond what we think of in terms of traditional advertising.

When we are creating some content and publishing it on our platforms, why do some ideas spread overnight while others simply disappear?

That’s the big question. I compare it to predicting earthquakes. In the other words, we know earthquakes will happen and we have some idea where they might happen. But predicting exactly where, when and why an earthquake will happen is almost impossible. Because there’s chaos theory involved. You’ve got such a complex environment and system that it’s almost impossible to make predictive assessments. And yet when something does happen we can look at it in hindsight and we can trace it back and we can discover how it happened. But it’s extremely difficult to predict.

You can have a hundred pieces of content which are essentially the same and only one of them goes viral. Why does this happen? It has to do with many different factors. One, of course, is the content itself and the form of the content, but then there is another thing which is the context. In other words, we have to be aware of when something was launched, what else was going in the world at that exact moment, was it somehow related to other triggers, social triggers that were happening in that exact moment.

Take the #metoo movement, for example. We say: “Why did that movement go viral when it did?”, People have been talking about sexual harassment for years and for generations, so why did it happen right now? Or let’s take the anti-gun movement in the United States, something is happening right now. There are some disruptions that have caused the situation to reach a certain inertia, where a bunch of young school kids has finally stood up and said “enough is enough”, but there were some social factors, there was timing, there was Trump, there was some complex chaotic combination of events.

People have been trying to make this issue take hold for years, so why did that happen now? What were the factors? There was context, there was politics, timing. There are a very complex set of factors, and again, it is a matter of a certain amount of inertia. In other words, an event builds and builds and then finally explodes. Why does it explore right now, with these circumstances? That´s the part that is difficult to predict.

Let’s take the amazing Georgian wine as an example. Georgian wine is like a well-kept secret waiting to explode around the world. It is waiting for the right mechanism, the right trigger, the right story, the right content. Something is going to happen and Georgian wine is going to become a global phenomenon. When this is going to happen  is tough to say. Today, I was talking to someone here in Tbilisi about Georgian wine and they said that Georgian wine is as good as Italian and French wines, but it’s a secret. They said “we do not know how to properly advertise it”. My thought was “why doesn’t Georgia do a campaign as if Georgia were actually trying to keep it a secret?” The whole campaign could be based around this idea of keeping it a secret. Maybe it needs some kind of trigger, some disruption. Do the opposite of what is expected. Somehow, somebody has to twist it in the right way. Make the idea sticky, as we call it.

How do I get people to respond to my message and then pass it on?

I would say that there are three basic techniques we use: First, there’s an emotional trigger. We respond to things that resonate with us emotionally. Second, is through information, which can come in the form of novelty, surprises, joy, humor. And finally we can use context. We can say that something is salient —that thing that is actually interesting right now, at this moment in time. So we can divide up content into those three areas and say, “can I make something that’s emotional and people would really respond to emotionally? Or in terms of the information, can we do something surprising or unique or humorous that would really take off, or can we somehow link it to a sort of social context?

Viral Contents are not always positive. For instance, one Youtube star posted a video showing a suicide case in Japan and it went viral. How can we prevent such things?

I would say that in a most basic sense, nothing is private anymore. We are all kind of observing warriors of the world, so this idea that I can get away with things is gone. People who have a lot of exposure need to remember that whatever they do could end up being public. Part of what is happening with this new social environment is that we are becoming more observed, so people need to be more careful of what they do.

However, there is a story of a football player who used his influence to change something and have a positive effect. A communications company in Spain launched a campaign a few years ago with the Spanish footballer José Gutiérrez “Guti”. He came out on social media saying that he thought that recycling was a waste of time. On his Twitter profile, the footballer said “Do you waste time recycling glass? I don’t”. Actually, this was part of his campaign to promote recycling. He used his negative sort of commentary to make a point. After a week, he came out again on social media and said that we had purposely made these comments to get people talking. It was a genius campaign.

What kinds of content do we simply view, vs the content that we like or share?

When we view content we all act as gatekeepers…we watch content basically to judge it. It depends first and foremost on where the content comes from. The more we trust the source of the content the more likely we are to view it. You know, if the content comes from a reliable source or it comes from a friend. But there are also many other factors, such as content form, context, political stands, ideology and etc. Sharing is absolutely about personal presentation; you are never going to share anything that would damage the image of yourself as a brand. We are constantly creating our own virtual persona. I think that sharing at a personal level is very much about creating your personal brand.

What does the future hold for online viral content?

If I knew that I would be sitting in my mansion in Malibu, California looking at the ocean. (laughs)

I think one of the trends that are going to really continue to grow is user-generated content. We are all becoming better photographers and better videographers and our ability to create content at the individual level is growing, and there are brands that are really tapping into this idea, that their clients can also generate content. I think it is a really powerful form. The Internet is anyway pretty narcissistic. There is an interesting statistic that, in a typical social conversation you might talk about yourself about 30 percent of the time, whereas online you talk about yourself about 80 percent of the time. So the nature of the sharing that happens online tends to be pretty narcissistic. I think that generating content and creating content is going to get easier and easier. In the near future cell phones might disappear. There are going to be new ways of engaging with technology, and the way we engage with technology will also drive the kind of content we produce. Augmented reality is certainly going to be the next big thing.

How far is that? Not far away at all.

By Nutsa Galumashvili
More by By Nutsa Galumashvili