What are viral products?

Products are not inherently viral. Instead, they represent an idea or are packaged in a way that becomes viral. The idea behind viral products achieves virality via the same distribution patterns—the way an idea spreads from person to person—as other forms of cultural information.

Take memes, for example. Today’s omnipresent memes provide a palatable illustration of the path that spreadable content travels through networks of people. Though now almost exclusively associated with digital content, the field of memetics first emerged in the 1970s, more broadly as the study of the spread of information—anything from a jingle in an advertisement and a style of dress to an idea. Successful memes were defined as achieving popularity, but more than that, as replicable and resilient, with the potential to become harbingers of culture themselves. Memeticists thereby likened how the strongest memes spread to how viruses spread, which brings us to “virality”—now a mainstay in 21st-century lexicon.

What is the gestation period of viral products?

The internet not only digitized ideas, but also accelerated their spreadability, bringing a limitless audience in contact with limitless information and opening the floodgates for anyone to introduce, respond to, manipulate or spread information online. The massive network of people online thereby allows information to cascade, billowing out from the original source to all of her network, to the networks of all of her followers, and so forth.

There remains no standard as how to define what goes viral or what its trajectory necessarily looks like—it simply implies a rapid spike, whether in media coverage, sales, foot traffic or mentions by consumers. In the lens of the consumer economy, this desire for rapid proliferation has motivated creators to think about physical products in the same way editors and copywriters think about digital content, driving the distribution of a product with clickable media that piques consumers’ interest and ideally converts to sales. Notably, both memes and products that go viral most often lie dormant in niche communities first, before external factors kick in, causing the idea to organically erupt overnight.

How fast information spreads is essentially the only metric by which to judge what goes viral, though attempts to pinpoint exactly how this information is spreading and why it remains in circulation for such a short period of time can enlighten much more about how virality works and is achieved.

Other questions remain about how the time horizon of a viral product compares to the time horizon of popular product—virality tends to be extremely short-lived and exponential and often comes with a number of the following traits, many of which are interconnected:

  • Highly visual: In the era of Instagram, going viral often necessitates a good image, which helps raise awareness and spread notoriety.
  • Shareable and social: The closest parallel outlining the sociality of viral content is Reddit—a site on which the most “thumbed-up” posts are featured at the top of the home page. In the same way, the more a product is shared, the more potential it has to leap to great heights.
  • The ability to become publicly ubiquitous: Products that go viral are either known to a wide breadth of people (they become household names thanks to digital word-of-mouth) and/or can be purchased en masse. Though virality does not necessarily imply a purchase—cronuts are viral because we have all heard about them, even if we have not all eaten them—it does typically mean that the product is inclusive, accessible and offered at a low price point. Conversely, just because we all know about the Birkin Bag doesn’t mean the product went viral—at tens of thousands of dollars, it’s unattainable to too many consumers.  
  • Participatory: Notably, viral products that encourage some sort of participation or action have a better chance of reaching viral status and remaining relevant, even after interest has peaked. Participation typically engenders emotion, attachment and communality, which will serve the product in the long run rather than experiencing a quick rise only to rapidly fall.
  • FOMO-inducing: Connected to shareability and visuality, most viral products inspire a fear of missing out as they disseminate across social networks. They make consumers wonder what it’s like to experience the product or incentivize those who do to post about for social capital, spinning the flywheel.
  • Memorable, in the short term: Like any meme, the product should be easily imprinted in consumers’ minds, at least in the short term. But like any fad, many are top-of-mind for a period, only to be forgotten.
  • Novel or defamiliarized: It’s important that the product be new or fresh—or a new or fresh take on something that previously exists. Many products that went viral began with a joke, or a twist on something commonplace—items that catch the eye. This lures new customers to try something they’ve never seen or experienced before.
  • Lack in practical value: Virality is less about the usability of the product and more about the visuality. The presentation of a product in the media—especially online and on social platforms—primes consumers to want to hold it, experience it and/or photograph it, but not necessarily consume it. Ironically, viral food products—the raindrop cake, or so-called Dragon’s Breath (balls of rice cereal smoked in liquid nitrogen)—are notoriously unpalatable, though their visual appeal is strong enough to compel consumers. In the words of one customer in line for the macaronut—a hybrid between a macaron and a donut, “It sounds so gross, but I found myself first in line for it.”
  • “Pick-me-ups”: What goes viral isn’t a staple or replenishment product, but rather a one-time, impulse buy. This also means that customers have low or zero retention rate. Products with high potential virality evoke feelings in consumers, much like toys do for young children. Not surprisingly, it’s widely acknowledged that content that inspires sadness or other “deactivating” emotions has less potential virality than information that stirs strong feelings, especially when positive.
  • Nostalgic: Products will often be childlike, but not necessarily limited to younger demographics. The fidget spinner, for example, was embraced by young and old, both as a toy and a stress relieving activity. Slime creators stem from adolescents age 12 or 13 to 25-year-olds for the same reason: it’s an anti-stressor and a creative activity, but also a new-age playdough.