Social marketing is all about sharing content that your audience shares in turn, expanding your reach and getting your message out to more and more people. But guessing — and second guessing — what the next viral trend will be doesn’t get you any closer to social success.

So just how do successful brands go about creating and sharing content that goes viral? We spoke with both content marketers and content creators to get their perspectives on the process. Here’s what they advised when it comes to creating and marketing that all-elusive viral content.

Making Videos that Resonate with Viewers

“The phrase ‘go viral’ is slightly misleading,” says David Waterhouse, Head of Content for Unruly Media, a firm that tracks online video successes and maintains the Viral Video Chart. “Viral suggests something that is random, untargeted and out of control. They are the exception, not the rule, and that’s why it’s a terrible tactic for brands to focus on. The good news for marketers is that unlike chasing the next viral phenomenon, there is a formula to social video success.”

So marketers shouldn’t necessarily be jumping on whatever they think the next hit Internet meme is — but if not, then just what is it that gauges a video’s potential viral success? Waterhouse says it comes down to the strength of a viewer’s emotional response. “The most successful campaigns combine content that elicits a powerful emotional response with a distribution budget that ensures the video is seen by its target audience.”

This was certainly the case with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals, which decided to use a video to help raise awareness for its cause during National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September. “This was our first video that relied on emotion, instead of facts, to spread a message,” says Tracy Dean, CHoA’s Manager of Social Media and Content.

The video — which featured patients, nurses, and doctors dancing, singing, and laughing — was a hit with viewers. “The children and teens we see at our Aflac Cancer Center inspire us every day; they are beautiful. We needed to capture their playfulness through visuals and audio. Telling someone that these children can dance and laugh is one thing — showing it has a bigger impact and leaves you smiling and full of hope.”

Sharing for Viral Success

But just making a video that resonates with potential viewers isn’t enough. To achieve viral levels of success, you have to be sure people are watching it and sharing it themselves. So, in addition to sharing the video over its social channels, CHoA spread the word by getting fellow members of the Stop Childhood Cancer Alliance to help spread the video on Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, it worked to promote the video on traditional media outlets.

“Two local Atlanta TV affiliates aired the video several times and The Today Show aired it once,” explains Brant Rawls, Senior Public Relations with CHoA. “We received more than 53,000 views on YouTube, paired with 900,000+ viewers on The Today Show. This is the most successful video to date for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.”

What translated into success for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta could translate into success for other companies, too. “There are more than half-a-million shares of online video ads every 24 hours, so the opportunity for brands to reach out and engage potential customers or brand advocates is huge,” says Waterhouse. But that doesn’t necessarily mean getting the shares will be easy. “When we launched the Unruly Viral Video Chart back in 2006, you only needed 52 shares to become the most popular video of the day. Fast forward to 2013 and the number one videos on average attract more than 60,000 shares a day. And you need at least one million shares to feature in the top 60 most shared ads of all time.”

As to where to share, while CHoA used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and traditional media to promote its video, there’s no right or wrong answer. People are more active on social networks than ever — which also means they’re sharing more than ever. “Four billion items are shared on Facebook every day and 700+ YouTube videos are shared on Twitter every minute,” Waterhouse explains. “Video ads account for 22.6% of all videos viewed. Shares of the top 10 most shared ads rose from 16.8 million in 2011 to 28.0 million in 2012, with the top 500 adverts attracting over 113 million shares (up 21% year on year).”

If a video is destined for success, chances are it will reach that level quickly. Compiling data from its Viral Video Chart, Unruly reports 10% of shares occur by day two, 25% of shares occur in the first three days, 50% of shares occur within the first three weeks, and 66% of shares occur in the first three months. “It means if a video is destined for great things, once it hits, it’s a pretty quick journey to viral status,” says Waterhouse.

Viral Video Isn’t Everything

While we may have made the path to viral success sound straightforward, it’s not as simple as getting the most-shared video. You need to be sure the right people — the people you’re trying to reach — are watching and sharing your video as well. Of course, if you’re thinking about making your own viral videos, you need to make sure that video as a medium makes sense in your overall social strategy.

[Image credits: TheDigitel Myrtle Beach, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, David Berkowitz]