The Power Of The First Follower: Analyzing The Viral Spread Phenomenon

First, watch this video:

YouTube Preview Image

What Is This?

This is a perfect example of an offline viral phenomenon whereby a single creative act, without active encouragement, is spread and grown organically to many hundreds of times its original size in less than three minutes.

Okay, But Why Did This Actually Work?

This is where things get really interesting. By dissecting the event, we can see that there were a number of factors that contributed to its viral spread. More specifically, the performance is:

  1. An original act of creativity, undertaken by the participants for the sake of their own pleasure and as a creative outlet
  2. Authentic, unapologetic, and self-satisfying
  3. An act that is unique, stands out, and requires bravery and originality
  4. Simple and concrete
  5. Easy to replicate and can be remixed

What Other Factors Lead To The Growth Of The Dance?

Beyond having the initial key components that set the stage for viral proliferation, there are a number of nuanced aspects to the event we can potentially learn from. It’s likely these differentiating factors played an important role in the quick proliferation of the event itself.

  1. The originator shows the audience how to replicate the act.
  2. When the second participant arrives, s/he is instructed, and then embraced as an equal. “If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire.”
  3. After the second participant arrives, the act no longer is about the originating individual; it is about both of them. When more participants arrive, it’s about the group. The second participant transforms the first “lone crazy person” into a leader, thereby making him/her a hero worthy of being followed and adding validity the movement.
  4. The third participant validates the second and contributes to the legitimacy of the first, and a tipping point is approaching.
  5. As more join, the group stops being a small movement and starts becoming news. The social danger of joining (potential embarrassment) is lessened with each additional participant until the social pull of the movement is such that non-participants are in danger of looking like wet blankets, drawing in even those with little interest.

Additional Less-Apparent (But Important) Factors:

Since the devil is in the details, it’s important to recognize some additional elements that helped further set the stage for viral potential — elements whose absence may have stymied growth before a tipping point could be reached.

  1. The originating group/community was of a sufficient size and a high enough visibility (in this case, on a hill). Without this, the spread of the movement could easily have fizzled out.
  2. The originating group was of sufficient similarity and had a somewhat cohesive group identity. This is necessary for the social incentives of this process to actually work. This event happened at the Sasquatch Indie Music Festival in George, Washington. Imagine this same scenario in a park filled with different religious groups, some of which do not approve of dancing.
  3. The act was in tune with the cultural paradigms and zeitgeist of the time and community — specifically the high value of personal expression, dancing and musical outlet.

As Online Marketers, What Can This Teach Us?

Although there are definitely differences in the medium of transmission between this example and an online one, the social principles that allowed for this to happen remain the same. We see an extremely similar progression in the birth of many memes.

To illuminate this idea more clearly, let’s take a closer look at the birth of the “Overly Attached Girlfriend” meme.

If you are unaware, the Overly Attached Girlfriend meme began as a YouTube submission by Laina Walker — a parody video of Justin Beiber’s music video “Boyfriend” for a related contest.

Laina’s video depicts her singing modified lyrics as if she was a crazy, obsessive girlfriend. The video itself received a lot of attention after being posted to Reddit; but, it wasn’t until other participants intervened that this single creative act became an online viral phenomenon.


Interestingly, by dissecting the spread of this meme, we can find many parallels in comparison to the dancers on the hill — providing us with a rubric to assess the viral potential of future content.

More Specifically, Laina’s Video Was:

  1. An original act of creativity for the sake of their own pleasure and creative outlet. (Check.)
  2. Authentic, unapologetic, and self-satisfying. (Check.)
  3. Something that stood out in the crowd and required bravery and originality. (Check.)
  4. Something simple and concrete. (Not initially so.)
  5. Something easy to replicate and that could be remixed. (Not initially so.)
  6. Something the audience could easily replicate or interact with. (Not initially so.)

At first blush, all we have here is an authentic, unapologetic, self-satisfying act that required bravery and originality to create and thus stands out, but seems to be lacking some of the other initial viral fundamentals.

So, How Did This Become A Meme?

When Laina’s video was uploaded to the Social News aggregator, the submitting user titled the post “Overly Attached Girlfriend,” taking the video from a lengthy piece of content to a simple, easy to understand, and concrete idea. (Check on item 4.)

Subsequently, a third user uploaded a still frame of Laina’s face from the video, posed in an accentuated way, to (a site that allows users to caption images for free).

This medium switch transformed the video into an easily remixable piece of sharable content, and gave future users an easy method for participating in the proliferation of the meme. (Check on items 5 and 6.)

crazy girlfriend meme

What Other Elements Led To The Meme’s Wild Success?

Looking closely at the progression of “Overly Attached Girlfriend,” we can find even more similarities with our real life dancers.

The first user to remix the content was embraced and rewarded (with Reddit Karma). They became part of a growing trend, helping to grow the movement. (Check on 7.)

As the meme grew larger, the content was no longer about the originating individual (Laina). Instead, it became about all of the participants in the movement, who rewarded each other for their proliferation of the meme. The second participant transforms the first “lone crazy person” into a leader, thereby making him (her) a hero worthy of being followed and adds validity the movement. (Check on 8.)

The Importance Of Social Proof

When a third participant validates the legitimacy of what the first and second sharers have done, a tipping point can been reached. With Laina’s content, this happened as the meme was replicated and transformed via Quickmeme and reposted to Reddit. (Check on 9.)

As more and more people join in, the originating group stops being a small movement and starts becoming news. While the anonymous nature of the internet dampens the “me too” and “don’t leave me out” aspects that may have helped our real-life example spread, the lowered boundaries for participation online make it easier not only for an idea to spread, but for new individuals to participate. (Check on 10.)

Targeting A Large & Homogeneous Community

The “Overly Attached Girlfriend” meme, like our offline example, utilized an originating group/community of sufficient size and a high enough visibility to achieve widespread attention. Without this, the spread of the movement could easily have fizzled out.

Since Reddit is a community of millions of members, it “self promotes,” making any content that is initially well-received also highly-visible. As we saw with our dancing friends, the more that join in, the more visible something can become. (Check on 11.)

Furthermore, we know that an important component to the viral spread for our dancers was the homogeneity of the participating audience. A single idea can proliferate more quickly by breeding within a community that has a cohesive group identity or, at least, a sufficiently similar frame of mind at an opportune point in time.

The platform through which “Overly Attached Girlfriend” made its debut (Reddit) is made up of a sufficiently large group with enough common ties for such a trend to spread. The community also self-selects itself into even more tightly-bound segments via the subreddit structure, giving this feature of viral spread an even bigger impact. (Check on 12.)

Lastly, it’s clear that “Overly Attached Girlfriend” also resonates with the cultural paradigms and zeitgeist of the Reddit community, since the idea of an “Overly Attached Girlfriend” is a well understood and personally identifiable concept. Many have experienced a significant other that is overbearing and too attached.

Just as our dancers tapped into the inherent joy of shared experience (through dance or song), “Overly Attached Girlfriend” hits us emotionally and taps into a shared experience most of us can identify with. (Check on 13.)

Boiling It Down

As content marketers that have created viral content for the past seven years, we strongly believe the listed elements can form the catalyst for viral exposure when appropriately mixed. Put simply, highly-viral content (whether online or off) is:

  • Original, Authentic and Brave
  • Simple and Concrete
  • Remixable and Easy to remix (broadly understood how to remix)
  • Validated from a few influential initial followers
  • Highly Visible & initially exposed to a community of similar users
  • Speaks to the Interests/Values of the community it is shared within

In Conclusion

If you’ve followed the formulas outlined above, it can be possible for anyone to create a viral smash, regardless of budget. Whether you’re looking at the spread of a dance offline or content online, virality is dependent upon humans to spread ideas or actions to one another. By optimizing each phase of this process, you increase the likelihood of success.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content Marketing | Content Marketing | Content Marketing Column


About The Author: is a public speaker, Harvard Business Review columnist, and VP of Marketing at, a company that specializes in the science behind viral marketing.

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  • Justin Belmont

    Thanks for the advice, Kelsey. The examples you provide here are excellent and demonstrate your point well. We at agree that content that is original, simple and validated by influential followers in your niche will boost your own credibility as a content producer and increase your readership/customer loyalty. Nice job.


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