What happens when a Tweet goes viral

What happens when a Tweet goes viral? A truly viral Tweet will have a much longer lifespan than a typical Tweet; most Tweets come and go within a few minutes. Most of us – and this goes for both personal and brand accounts – will receive a majority of our retweets within the first hour or two of posting a new Tweet. But a viral Tweet will continue to earn retweets for hours, even days after posting. In fact, you know a Tweet has gone viral if the rate of retweets actually accelerates after a few hours, instead of slowing down or stopping completely.

The anatomy of a viral Tweet

What can we do to make something go viral on Twitter? Of course there’s no magic formula, but there are some things we can learn by investigating viral Tweets. Let’s take a look, using our brand new Tweet detail reporting to help us understand exactly what happens when a Tweet goes viral. Here’s a Tweet our CEO Hayes Davis posted a few months ago.

This Tweet was posted on April 16 at 2:48 pm PT. At first, this Tweet performed like most Tweets; it got a few retweets, replies and likes. But about a day later, something very different happened. When most Tweets would stop getting any new engagement after a day, this Tweet started getting a whole lot more engagement. Over the course of the next week, it generated more than 2500 retweets, 3700 likes, and 5 million potential impressions. Check this out:


This graphic shows the first 36 hours of our viral Tweet. The original Tweet generated 1,434 potential impressions when it was posted. It was then retweeted and replied to a few times over the next 20 hours, generating a few thousand more potential impressions. These early responses hardly even show up on these charts; they’re that small compared to what happened next. You can see the charts start to trend upwards around 12pm the next day, and then at 3pm, there’s a huge spike, followed by several hours of increased activity. Over the next few days, the Tweet generated thousands of retweets and millions of potential impressions.

How did this happen? We can actually identify the users that retweeted the Tweet to their followers, each one reaching a new, larger, more diverse group of people. Below is a list of a few of those retweets. You can see there were a few retweets 22-23 hours later, and then a big surge about 24 hours (1 day) later when @goldman, who has more than a million followers, retweeted it. From there, it spread quickly.


On Twitter, it’s a little tricky to connect a downstream retweet with the exact retweet that led to it. But using the information above, we can identify when a Tweet went viral and who contributed to it. Not only is this pretty cool, it’s also helpful. You can use this information to identify influential individual contributors as well as clusters of related users, analyze successful Tweets to learn what messaging works well, and pinpoint more appropriate times to Tweet. The more you understand about what worked for previous Tweets, the better prepared you are to create better future Tweets.

The ingredients in a viral Tweet

There’s no way to guarantee something you post will take off. But you can follow a few best practices to help make it more likely. So, what can you do to set yourself up for potential virality?

  1. Be interesting. The best Tweets say something unique and many of them are funny.
  2. Be relevant. Tap into the cultural zeitgeist by saying something appropriate for when you’re posting.
  3. Know your audience. Who are you trying to reach? Write your Tweet in a way that will connect with your ideal listener.

Want to do this kind of analysis on your own or a competitor’s Tweets? Union Metrics Twitter analytics start at just $99 per month and you can sign up to try them out any time! Learn more here.