The Average Life Span of Web Content

When content no longer gets shared

Posted 10 months ago by Tom Maiaroto.

It's no surprise that internet users are fickle and we have short attention spans. There is just so much internet content out there to consume that we're almost trained to have short attention spans. What about "viral" content? Surely that must have more staying power, right? That has to live longer and be shared for a good while. Well, you may be surprised to find out that's not necessarily true.

While every now and then we have some long viral wave and things like "Gangnam Style" get shared for weeks and even months on end, most content doesn't.

I decided to see what this fall off or "tail" was for social media sharing activity. Virality Score measures the exact degree to which content is viral hour by hour. If you're not familiar with how the scoring process works, you can read more here. So I decided to graph the current scores for content from the past week.

It is important to note that this is how viral content currently is and not was. The x-axis in these graphs represent when content was published and any single sample that makes up the value for a given hour along the x-axis would then not be responsible for the values at any other point in the graph. Looking at the data this way allows us to see this sharing fall off.

The first graph depicts the, current, maximum virality score observed for content published over the past week.

current max virality score

What we can see here is that there really isn't much content that remains viral after a few days. There are some exceptions and there's some piece of content that just won't quit here from the 18th. It's still being shared to this day at a great rate. There's also some content on the 20th that stands out among all other content from that day. Though we still see a lot of up and down here.

The next graph is the average virality score for content from the past week. It more clearly illustrates the "tail" here for sharing activity across social media.

This graph is a lot smoother. Again we see a few spikes here and there, but it very clearly defines the life span of content. It's easier to tell from this graph that the life span is only about a day. The other graph was a little harder to tell.

A day?! Wow. On average, content ends up being half as viral within a few hours. By a day, it's only being shared a fraction of what it once was. Though it seems to linger like that for a while, the "golden moment" of virality for content is within the first day. One might even say within the first few hours (each bar in this graph represents an hour). 

We're often so amazed by big data that we want to know every little thing about every piece of data and we miss the big picture. Like art, when you squint your eyes at things, you can see some interesting things when taking a look at the big picture.

There's some great observations to be made here. For starters, this helps confirm that internet users have short attention spans (at least when it comes to internet content). It also tells us that it is imperative to share your content across social media immediately. Waiting isn't going to do you any good. When people say that is "so yesterday" perhaps it's not as silly as it sounds.

Is there simply too much content to get to out there? Are we overwhelmed by it all?

A clever assumption one might make is that content shared on social media networks ends up in some sort of "stream" and that content across the internet is "paginated" in blogs and other sites. So we end up missing content since we aren't all plugged in 24/7. So how far back do we look for our news? We simply may only end up reading what's on the front-page of a site. Sure enough one of the hardest things about content publishing is getting users to dig deeper into a site.

As far as content streaming by and being missed, that's also a great assumption and many marketers will tell you that you need to share content more than once. Of course you'll want to be careful about spamming people and coming off as spam, but often sharing something just once is not enough. To borrow a well known tech quote:

Share early. Share often. Listen to your visitors.

While any good marketer will tell you this is a good philosophy, keep in mind that there is a shelf life on your content even if you share multiple times across several channels. Word travels faster than ever these days and internet content moves fast and dies hard (I've totally been looking for the day I could say that where it makes sense!).

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