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March 5, 2018 05/03/2018

The (Not-So-Simple) Science Behind Viral Content

Not only have we all seen them. Most of us have also probably shared them. We’re talking, of course, about popular content on social media. You know – those precious videos of babies hearing for the first time or the ones showing funny pet antics. The silly quizzes. The must-try food or drink recipes.

What makes content like this so popular? Does viral content just happen, or is there more to it? While an occasional post or video may gain traction by chance, there’s usually a science to it. In fact, most viral content has one or more of the following factors. Let’s take a look.



Jonah Berger, author of the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, explains the role of emotion in viral content simply and powerfully: when we care, we share. This can run the gambit from laughter to sadness, frustration to excitement, awe, outrage and just about any other emotion you can think of. Sometimes a piece of content covers several emotions at once, like the Budweiser Super Bowl commercial when the puppy gets lost and the Clydesdales lead him home. That combined everything from sadness and fear to pride and elation. And people shared the heck out of it.


Social Currency

Content with social currency improves the social status of the people who share it. Think about the things you share with your own social network. Have you shared things to raise awareness or spread the word about a cause that you care about? Perhaps you shared a contest to get others involved and improve your standing. Or maybe it was simply a post that made you feel like an insider. Remember the ice bucket challenge? That’s a perfect example of social currency in viral campaigns.



Everyone knows Geico’s Caleb the Camel ‘Hump Day’ campaign. “Guess what day it is….” For months and months, every Wednesday, people from all walks of life would share memes, video clips and Bitmojis depicting Caleb and his infamous catchphrase. This is a great example of how content that triggers certain memories or thoughts can easily go viral.



People like to share things that they believe will help others in their network. This is the science behind all those viral recipe videos we all see and share on a daily basis. Other content that plays on practicality includes infographics, listicles and guides. Bonus points if the content also relates to a current trend.



When it comes to social media, people tend to view things in terms of narratives rather than information. A really good story can actually pull together some of the above factors, such as emotion, social currency or practicality. Storytelling is also a great way to demonstrate authenticity and endear people to a particular brand, which is why it’s a big part of marketing. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign did this effectively by shedding light on women’s body image issues and generating viral conversation as a result.


Ultimately, there’s no fool-proof way to determine whether content will go viral or not. Incorporating the elements listed above, however, can certainly improve the odds.

Have you had experience with producing viral content? What do you think was the secret to your success? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.






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