Viral digital content can also spawn massive activity among consumers, even if short-lived. “In My Feelings”—one track on Drake’s 2018 album “Scorpion”—wasn’t a single, didn’t have a music video, and received no promotion from Spotify upon release. But less than two weeks after its release, it incited a social media craze: a dance challenge called #dotheshiggy or #inmyfeelingschallenge started by a fan and sustained by the crowd.

Entirely unrelated to Drake, his label or any streaming platform, the surge in video posts for the challenge points to the massive power of consumers in deciding what does or doesn’t become viral, the relative lack of agency any corporate entity has in manufacturing that sort of trajectory for a product and the importance of media—especially social media—in sparking virality. When it comes to digital products and the online distribution networks they live on, the power of the crowd on social media platforms can spread awareness for a product at hyperspeed, catalyzing virality in the process.

The ALS Association capitalized on a social media trend, embracing the breadth of digital networks and the speed of digital distribution.  

The Ice Bucket Challenge precipitated similar results when it launched in 2014. Like the Dollar Shave Club video, the Ice Bucket Challenge was a campaign—this time, to raise awareness and money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research. But the original challenge was a one-off by pro golfer Chris Kennedy, who asked a friend whose husband had ALS to dump a bucket of water on her head as a comedic gesture of support. The friend subsequently posted her video to Facebook, where she challenged another member of her community to do the same. As more friends and family posted their own videos, the challenge spread beyond New York state to Boston. By mid-August, the ALS Association had already raised $4 million—almost four times more than the same period a year prior.

Seeing the potential of the challenge to enhance recognition of the disease, the ALS Association published an official press release in August 2014, spurring mass Ice Bucket events in Boston; the city then challenged New York and Los Angeles to do the same. As more people embarked on the challenge (part of which necessitated nominating three other friends to do the same), high-profile cases emerged—Bill Gates accepted Mark Zuckerberg’s challenge and nominated Elon Musk, Ryan Seacrest and TED’s Chris Anderson, Jimmy Fallon nominated the New York Jets. By the end of August, donations to the association reached $100 million.

The challenge illustrates the massive network effects of a participation-based social media campaign. Built on accessibility, shareability and participation, the Ice Bucket Challenge was predisposed for virality. It required only a bucket of water and a smartphone to shoot a video, which could easily be uploaded online and shared, and the “nomination” component ballooned participation further. In terms of the actual content, the videos exemplified comedic, evocative material—who wouldn’t want to see their friend spill a bucket of water on their head, or their favorite celebrity?

The Ice Bucket Challenge illuminates the trajectory of other viral products—this time, in the form of a donation to the ALS Association—and of the word-of-mouth that may scale as awareness grow. As we have outlined in Building Bulletproof Brands, consumer product companies engender surface communities—a group of consumers that grows by one, each time a sale is processed—but they can also catalyze or become associated with another type of network called a hive, whose growth is not dependent on selling product.

As a hive case study, it’s important to note that the Ice Bucket Challenge was not developed by the ALS Association—the organization first mentioned the challenge almost two months after the first video was published on Facebook. But even after the organization’s official press release, the Ice Bucket Challenge continued to operate as a decentralized initiative, setting off a chain reaction that grew the number of participants exponentially thanks to the power of social media. Fervor came from both celebrities and public figures who mobilized the crowd (top-down) and from the crowd itself, which urged others to take part (bottom-up). In turn, it spread awareness of the campaign and sent more donation dollars to the ALS Association.

Pokémon Go and Fortnite’s social-oriented online games went viral and remain relevant in the long term.  

In July 2016, Niantic Inc. launched the augmented reality game Pokémon Go. Free to play—all revenue comes from in-app purchases—the mobile game was tied to geographic location; in creating an account, players customize their avatar, who is placed on a map reflecting the user’s location. As the user navigates her community, she comes across so-called PokéStops or Pokémon Gyms—real establishments, like a park or a Starbucks—trying to “catch” other avatars.

In its first month of existence, the game broke five Guinness World Records: most revenue grossed by a mobile game ($206.5 million); most downloaded mobile game (130 million downloads); most international charts topped simultaneously for a mobile game in downloads (70 countries); most international charts topped simultaneously for a mobile game in terms of revenue (55 countries); and fastest time to gross $100 million by a mobile game (20 days). At its peak on July 15, 2016, Pokémon boasted 800 million active users—what some called Pokémania.

After this threshold was met, however, usage began to fall—by mid-September 2016, Pokémon Go had lost 79% of its players. Some of the decline was attributed to the start of the academic school year, but it also reflected the short nature of virality. As one critic aptly wrote in the month of the game’s release, “If Niantic keeps [the game] frequently updated with new features and added depth, there’s potential for it to be a game we’re still talking about years down the road. Or it could end up as a passing fad, a brush fire craze that the whole gaming world is talking about for a few weeks and then forgotten.”

Defying these expectations, the game retains 147 million monthly active users as of May 2018 and has collected $1.8 billion in revenue in two years since its launch. In addition to Niantic’s decision not to monetize the game (aside from in-app purchases), its staying power stems from its localization, and the rare level of physical activity required for a mobile game, which gives Pokémon Go a unique experiential component and invites real world connections. New features, updates and limited-edition offerings maintain a sense of freshness for long-term players. Other critics note that the video game is also more inclusive than is typical, attracting more women and older demographics.

These aspects may keep the game relevant in the long run, even if its virality wore off long ago. As a free game, Pokémon Go made the point of entry dependent on only a smartphone, inviting a wide breadth of users to play and collecting a large base of players that, even as it subsides, remains at almost 150 million. Arguably, though the large following the game amassed in the first month has declined, the number of players will remain somewhat stable over time.

The mechanics of another viral online game called Fortnite mimic the qualities of Pokémon Go. Fortnite is a multiplayer shooter game in which 100 players jump out of plane to land on an island, where they scrounge for weapons and other resources, fighting one another until only one is left standing. First released as “early access” in July 2017, the game was under development for two months before being officially launched as a free digital download for PC, Xbox, PlayStation, smartphone and Nintendo Switch in September 2017.

The game was downloaded more than 2 million times via Switch in the first 24 hours and, as of July 2018, has 125 million players across all platforms. It’s also the most-watched game on Twitch, the streaming platform and rakes in $300 million a month in revenue—like Pokémon Go, players pay for costumes and other items for their avatar. Epic Games, the video game and software company that created Fortnite, has received more than $1.2 billion in revenue since the September release.

Similar to Pokémon Go, Fortnite has reached virality thanks to accessibility; not only is the game free, but players use an identical interface, regardless of the platform. Players can play solo, or form squads with their friends, using the game not only to compete, but also like an online chatroom to coordinate moves, meaning the game has a distinct social component, and new and rotating features draw them back in on a weekly basis. Embedding themselves in a digital world that is constantly evolving, Fortnite appears more like a social media platform—Instagram, for instance—than a traditional video game as each time players log on, they have something new to discover.