Sorry to break the news, but there’s no real formula to make a photo go viral. As the saying goes, it’s not viral unless it is.
However, even if there was a formula for viral photos, the following five elements would not be a part of the equation. Take these distractions off your mental checklist and focus on taking a photo with real viral sharing potential.
1. A Professional
The beauty of viral photos is that they don’t have to be beautiful at all. Photos don’t go viral because of their aesthetic appeal, they go viral because they present a new way of looking at the world. They elicit an emotional response because they’re part of a bigger story that matters to a large group of people.
Take, for example, this photo from Wrigley heiress Helen Rich, who adopted a senior black lab with a sad past. In this photo, the dog is looking out the window of the private jet Rich sent to bring him home. There’s nothing particularly unique about the way this was photographed. The dog has red-eye and the photo itself is a bit blurry.
Just because you’re talking about an issue, event or topic that affects many people doesn’t mean you have to show many people. In fact, the human brain is wired to empathize with the plight of one person versus many. There’s a reason we end up caring deeply for the people we read about in books or see in the movies, even when we know it’s fiction. We understand circumstances through individual stories – no matter how many people are actually involved.
This translates directly to viral photos. People want and need to learn about the world and what’s going on, but when it comes to imagery, you don’t need a lot of people to do it. Images showing one person who’s representative of something larger will compel people to empathize. Numbers don’t connect with us emotionally, but people do – and when you try to squeeze too many of them into one photo, it loses its impact.
You know that old and horribly sexist saying that no one will buy the cow if they get the milk for free? Well, it kind of applies here. People aren’t going to be as excited about a photo that tells them everything they want to know. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the intrigue?
Movie trailers don’t give away the ending, and neither should your photo. The best viral photos invoke human curiosity. They don’t provide you with all the knowledge, they make you hungry for it.
Take the famous “Bloody Bicycle” photo by Annie Leibovitz. In this week’s blog post on NPR, Robert Krulwich writes, “…the picture doesn’t just invite you, it compels you, forces you to ask, ‘What just happened?'”
4. The exotic
You don’t have to travel far and wide to score viral photo. There are moments of brilliance and perfection in the every day, happening on very street, in every neighborhood.
You see an elderly couple in a Starbucks and you think nothing of it. You walk past and go about your day. But dig a little deeper, take a few moments to see what’s really going on, and you’ll find an incredible story.
That’s what this photo represents – a man teaching his girlfriend, who lost her memory, to read. It’s not a photo of a couple getting coffee at Starbucks. It’s a photo about love, commitment and never giving up.
5. A budget
Don’t get me wrong – I am a digital marketer by profession and I believe strongly in the necessity of digital advertising. But that said, photos are among the strongest fodder for organic sharing. We’re in the prime of visual storytelling, and your best photos shouldn’t be posted once and forgotten about.
Post your photo on all of your social networks. Write a blog post about it. Create a photo collage. Make it your cover photo. The possibilities are endless – good photos can and should be reused and recycled. There’s a need for photos on pretty much every single digital channel, so take advantage of this and cross promote your photo far and wide. Increase your reach through amplification, not dollars.
What characteristics do you think photos need – or don’t need – to go viral? Tell us in the comments below!