The Math Behind Viral Content Doesn’t Add Up


Everybody wants to create that piece of “super-sticky”, high-quality content, right? We get it; as bloggers we want to write posts that get attention from unexpected sources, even if that attention sometimes amounts to “what is this fu<&ing bullsh!t?

Reuters econ reporter and general gadfly Felix Salmon has done the math on the viral model, and he warns content creators not to put all their eggs in one basket. There’s a lot of fancy algebra in his post, so we’ll summarize it.

First, remember that Upworthy and BuzzFeed wouldn’t exist without Facebook, because that’s where they get their exposure.

Also: lots of these sites use email marketing to “get the ball rolling”; that’s why they always have pop-ups asking for your address.

The X factor in this equation is Facebook’s recent news feed tweak, which, as we all know, arranges posts by what it “thinks” you will like rather than simply showing you the things you’ve actively chosen to see via friendships and “likes” in chronological order. The point? When you share something, only a fraction of your friends will see it because the new Facebook model prioritizes posts shared by the friends you interact with most often.


Salmon concludes that, in addition to placing limits on the average story’s reach, Facebook will eventually realize that users don’t really “like” every story they click on. In many cases they simply follow a “clickbaity” headline but respond to the content itself with an “SMH” because they feel hoodwinked (we’re looking at you, CNN).

Once Facebook realizes that clicks don’t necessarily signal approval or satisfaction, they’ll stop pushing all those Upworthy stories up to the top of your newsfeed, so the “viral content” trend is just that—a temporary blip on the media radar screen. Facebook’s Paper app release reminds us that, even as media outlets struggle to make money, legitimate news will live on as long as it provides value (aka relevant information about products and other things) to the reader.

In other words, the work PR does with real journalists will outlast Upworthy and all related “is it spam?” content.

Do we agree?

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.