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5 Reasons Why Social Media Challenges go Viral


There is never a shortage of social media challenges, especially these days with a large proportion of the world working from home to control the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the more recent #ToiletPaperJuggle and #10Pushups challenges, or the classic #ALSIceBucket and #Mannequin challenges.

For the most part, these challenges appear to be almost pointless. What do people have to gain from biting into a Tide Pod, knowing that consuming laundry detergent can be toxic? Is it really worth recording yourself several times until you perfectly flip a bottle until it lands upright?

However, the matter of the fact is that they go viral. Sometimes supernova viral. Here’s why (with context of how these challenges first started and went viral).

1. No one wants to “arrive late”

Psychologically, we are wired to want to be one of the first ones to do something (but not always the first). So when something begins to gain traction, we quickly jump on-board to not miss out. This is what causes them to go viral all of a sudden, especially if they’re linked to something that’s already very familiar/viral.

However, they’re also quick to die out once they peak. This is because as the challenge gets more and more viral, people have either already done it, or now it’s just uncool to do what everyone else is doing.

The Kiki Challenge, which involved jumping out of a vehicle and dancing to Drake’s “In My Feelings” (an already viral song), saw 6.2 million mentions in the first 3 months, and then only 500,000 in the 5th month. It all started when American comedian Shiggy posted an Instagram video (which didn’t actually involve a car–this only became a feature after his friend, Odell Beckham Jr, danced in front of a vehicle).

2. FOMO and Sense of Belonging

Often, these challenges include nominating friends (10 Pushups challenge) or doing the challenge as a group (Harlem Shake). This makes us feel part of a broader community, making us happy and excited that we got included in the trend. Additionally, it has the component of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). People don’t want to miss out on things that other people are doing, especially if they are perceived as fun and cool.

The Harlem Shake challenge involves one person dancing to the beginning of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” song and then, as the beat drops, the video cuts to people going nuts in the most ridiculous way and wearing the most ridiculous things. Over 12,000 Harlem Shake videos had been uploaded within the first week and watched over 44 million times. It started with Japanese comedian George Miller (DizastaMusic on YouTube), but wasn’t until 5 teenagers in Australia replicated the video that it started going viral with groups.

3. Being challenged = Greater desire to do it

Remember when you’d tell your sibling, “I bet you can’t keep quiet for 30 mins” and they’d actually do it? Yeah, most challenges have the same psychological effect. Human beings are inherently competitive beings and proving someone wrong, more than being challenged, really excites us.

In fact, on the extreme end of the spectrum, this is why some of those riskier social media challenges (Biting Tide Pods, Eating a Spoon-full of Cinnamon) went viral. Studies have shown that adopting dangerous behaviors is usually triggered by emotional excitement and adrenaline rushes, which is amplified in crowds.

The joke about eating Tide Pods because they look like candy has always been around since Tide launched the product. However, the first public mention of eating Tide Pods can be traced back to a 2015 post on The Onion, a satirical publication. After that, the joke started to become super mainstream on social media and the challenge took off when College Humour shared a video of a man eating a bowl of laundry pods who realizes they could be poisonous, but eats them anyways and “does not regret it”.

4. Reward and Validation

We like feeling rewarded and validated. These rewards could simply be bragging rights that you did the challenge, or feeling like you contributed to a greater social cause (ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, Movember). The reward could also be in the form of likes, comments, and shares on the posts that generate sentiments of validation.

This is especially true because the reward versus effort ratio is very high; for a minimal amount of effort, you get a larger “perceived” reward. Our ingrained social instinct makes us feel more connected and engaged and we deem the effort as worthwhile. Sometimes, however, these rewards can be more tangible by offering discounts, money, or free products if you participate.

5. Celebrities fuel the fire

Celebrities have a huge social media following, sometimes a religious one. So when they give-in to the challenge, a large number of people see that and are tempted to do the same. I mean, if Barack Obama and Bill Gates are pouring a bucket of ice on their heads for ALS awareness, why not me?

The ALS Ice Bucket challenge involves pouring a bucket of cold water on your head to raise awareness for ALS disease. Within months, the challenge raised over $16 million for the ALS Association. The challenge started in July 2014 when pro golfer Chris Kennedy was nominated to participate in an ice bucket challenge (nothing to do with ALS). Kennedy then challenged his wife’s cousin Jeanette Senerchia, whose husband has ALS, which was the first link between the ice bucket challenge and ALS.

How can small businesses benefit?

Small businesses can also run social media challenges and benefit from their expanded reach. This could be by being a follower (doing a company Harlem Shake, pouring an ice bucket on your head wearing your company swag), or you can create your own challenge. Being a follower allows you to catch the wave before it’s gone and gain massive exposure through it. And if your video is good enough, other people will share it which will only fuel the fire.

Now for your own challenge, you’ll probably not get Barack Obama and Bill Gates partaking, but you can still expand your reach through your following, their following, and so on. You’ll need to get creative though, as challenges cannot be a one size fits all. It’ll need to be tailored to your brand and have the basic ingredients of challenge virality: entertaining, short, replicable, and dumb enough to be fun but not so dumb that no one does it.

Important distinction: A social media challenge is not the same as a social media contest (“Tag 3 friends to enter a chance to win free headphones”). We’ll cover social media contests in a seperate post.

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