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5 tips to make your content go viral

n. vi·ral (advertising)

unpaid online distribution or communication of advertising content and messages from consumer to consumer [1]

Going viral

When it comes to viral media, we all have our top favourites.

Whether it’s the classic sneezing panda or the recently released Bodyform ad, the kinds of content that go viral all tend to have one thing in common: they press our emotional buttons.

Peer persuasion

In general, we tend to be more influenced by (and therefor more likely to share) content that we believe has been generated by our peers.

It’s perhaps for this reason that many businesses secretly employ ‘ordinary users’ to upload seemingly authentic content for a fee [2]. In fact, it’s a practice that has become so common place that a whole new area of law has emerged to deal with the arising issues.

But content doesn’t magically become contagious simply because it’s been created by your peers, or disseminated by key influential people within online communities.

In a recent piece of research, Marketing Professor Jonah Berger and Assistant Professor Katherine L. Milkman studied all the New York Times articles published over a three-month period to extract a unique data set – all to examine how emotions shape virality.

5 tips for creating viral content:

Content that went viral over this three month period tended to have several things in common – the various emotional responses they evoked in the website visitors. The picture isn’t quite as cut-and-dry as we might like, but if you want to create contagious content, here are 5 tips you need to know.

1. Go positive

Contrary to popular belief, this study found that when it comes to news, articles that were positive were more highly shared than negative ones – so if you want to get your content shared, make it funny, lovely or uplifting. Here’s a great example:

2. Interesting, surprising, useful

Crafting contagious content is both an art and a science. To boost your chances of going viral, research your audience and create something that they’ll find interesting, surprising or practically useful.

3. Tap into high-arousing emotions

Content that induces high-arousal states are more likely to result in social transmission – but it’s not just happy emotions that can boost sharing. Although positive feelings of awe and joy do increase content’s shareability, negative high-arousing emotions such as anger and anxiety can also be very effective. Here’s a great example of the negative emotional trigger at work:

4. Avoid sob stories

Following on from the point above, content that evokes emotions such as sadness are less effective. Inducing these low-arousal or ‘deactivating’ emotions do not bode well for content going viral – even when ‘sad’ content is interesting, surprising or practically useful. So if you have a sad story to tell, find a way to tap into a stronger, more visceral emotion to get wider sharing.

5. Prominent positioning

Here’s a simple one – want your content to get noticed? Give it pride of place on the page and put it where everyone will see it first – it can work in advertising, and it can work here too. (Though obviously your content has to be worth sharing if you’re going to benefit from this final tip!)

A final word

When you’re creating the conditions for content to go viral, it’s not enough to rely on current best-practice – getting key ‘influencers’ to share content in the hope that it’ll catch on (this is the reason that Twitter’s promoted tweets exist).

Rather, if you want to get more bang for your buck, you’re better off exploring how the psychological processes like those above influence social transmission, and crafting your content accordingly.



[1] M. Petrescu & P. Korgaonkar (2011) Viral Advertising: Definitional Review and Synthesis. Journal of Internet Commerce, 10(3).

[2] E. P. Goodman (2007) Peer Promotions and False Advertising Law. South Carolina Law Review, 58, pp 683-707.

[3] J. Berger & K. L. Milkman (2012). What Makes Online Content Viral? Journal of Marketing Research, 49(2), pp 192-205.

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Best-selling author of "Webs of Influence" (Pearson). International speaker, consultant, columnist at Marketing Week.
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