So You Think You’ve Got A Viral Idea? Now What

So, you've come up with an awesome content marketing idea. In fact, it's so good, that you reckon it could go viral. But how do you know if you've really got a hit on your hands?

To help understand whether you're about to go viral, we're going to cover:

  • The key characteristics of viral content. 
  • How you can build viral characteristics into your content.

What do I mean by virality?

  • In this context, I'm specifically talking about creating viral content for marketing purposes. I'm not talking about building virality into a product, or making an idea viral.
  • My definition of viral content is content that is circulated rapidly on the internet. It should have a viral coefficient higher than 1. (A viral coefficient is the total number of new viewers generated by one existing viewer. A viral coefficient above 1 means the content has viral growth and is growing, and a coefficient below 1 means that sharing growth is diminishing).
So, what are the typical characteristics of content that goes viral?

1. Does it create social value 

In his excellent book, 'Contagious, Why Things Catch On' Jonah Berger lays down this fundamental rule of virality:

Will sharing this make me look good to others
One of the fundamental reasons people share online is to make themselves look good. Why? Because the choices we make (and share) signal our identity - it's who we are as people.

That's why we share all the good stuff (cool parties, holidays) but don't share the bad stuff (losing our job, failing an exam...)

So what exactly can you do to make people look good and create social value for them?
  • Make your content remarkable. This is an obvious one, but the more remarkable (unusual, interesting, extraordinary, worthy of attention) your content is, the more likely people are to share it. A great example of remarkable content is something we've just done for one of our clients, Concert Hotels:
  • Make people feel like insiders. If you can provide people with something that is totally  unique to them, then they are more likely to share that knowledge, as they're the first to know about it. You only have to look at the success of membership only sites e.g. Achica, Gilt Group to know that exclusivity/scarcity has incredible power to motivate people. Not convinced by the power of scarcity/insider knowledge? Read how Disney turned 7 outreach emails into 350m impressions.
  • Leverage game mechanics. It's a fact that people like to look good. More interestingly, people like to look good relative to others.
Spot test: Would you rather?
  • A - Earn £100k if your peer group was earning £200k?
  • B-  Earn £50k if your peer group was earning £25k?

If you chose option B, then you chose with the majority. People would rather earn less money but be richer in relative terms. Basically people like to look good relative to other people.

So how can we use game mechanics in our marketing?

A great example of this is from UsVsth3m, (a content marketing startup backed by The Daily Mail).

Their 'How Northern Are You?' game was hugely successful. 3.8m people have played so far, and at one point 20k people were playing it at the same time!

The output of the game defines how northern you are, and then posts your score to twitter or facebook. People can then compare/compete for how Northern (or in my case un-Northern) they are. Game mechanics sorted!

2. Triggers

If social value is what gets people talking, then triggers are what keep people talking. Triggers are things that you can build into your content that can increase the virality of it.

If you can associate your message with something that is regularly front of mind, then you are more likely to go viral.

A great example of this is from Mars confectionery. Mars were trying to explain a 25% sales uplift that they had experienced. After much research, they discovered that the sales uplift was when the Mars Rover had landed...on the planet Mars! Simply by the word Mars being front of mind, sales had increased.

So how can we build this into one of our viral ideas?

What can you associate your content with that is regularly front of mind? Distilled create a lot of small business guides for Simply Business.  For example, the 'Small Business Guide To Twitter', the 'Small Business Guide to Wordpress'.

There are a number of features of viral content that have made these guides a success, but is one of the success factors of these guides in part down to the trigger...In other words, when a small business owner thinks of blogging or wordpress, do they think of Simply Business guides?

What can you associate your content with? Something topical in the news, time, geography, popular culture, routines?

Pro Tip: If there are lots of other things already associated with something, it is harder to get your message across.

3. Does it stimulate an emotional reaction?

This is a biggie. Emotion plays a huge part in the ability of content to go viral. But how do we harness that?

A better understanding of emotion can help with the answer. We've all read blog posts that say positive content gets shared, negative content doesn't.

However, Berger claims that the emotion aroused isn't as important as the physiological arousal that we experience when we see content.

What do I mean by physiological arousal? A physical response; blood pressure rises, muscles tense, pupils dilate. That's arousal. 

Berger found that high arousal was likely to stimulate people to share, and that low arousal is less likely to make us share.

High Arousal Low Arousal
Positive  Awe, excitement, Amusement Contentment
Negative Anger, anxiety Sadness

So, what I'm (well, Berger) is saying here is that the specific emotion is less important for sharing, it's more about the level of arousal that you experience.

A great example of negative high arousal was something I came across while using my new favourite content marketing tool; Buzzsumo

The most shared post on  The Telegraph from the past 6 months (+350% than any other post) is the story of a tv presenter that had killed a lion.

How did you feel when you read this story? Angry, activated, wanted to do something? Me too.

Although the specific types of emotion are less important, Kelsey Libert (who you should follow by the way) found in a study on the HBR the types of emotion that are more likely stimulate sharing:

Emotions that fit into the surprise and anticipation segments of Plutchik’s wheel were overwhelmingly represented. Specifically:

  • Curiosity
  • Amazement
  • Interest
  • Astonishment
  • Uncertainty
  • Admiration (an unexpected result)

Pro Tip 1: When you come up with an idea, test and watch for people's physiological reaction to it. If they don't respond to the idea in a way that you would expect for someone that is aroused, it's back to the drawing board!

Pro Tip 2: You can also increase people's emotional identification with a piece of content by making the piece interactive (i.e. quizzes and games) or by personalising the content (have a look at this piece of viral marketing and prepare to be freaked out!).

4. Speed you evoke an emotional reaction

According to Kelsey Libert, the speed that you evoke an emotional reaction is key for viral sharing. So it's incredibly important that:
  • You frame your content in a way that your audience immediately get it. If your audience don't get it, it's not going viral. Pro Tip: Read 'Made To Stick' if you want to work out how to get people to understand your ideas.
  • The medium you choose. Memes, images and visual content work because the speed you can understand/engage with them is almost instant.
Pro Tip: Have you ever wondered why Top 10 lists are so well liked on the internet? Because we're making it clear that this content is going to be really simple and easy to engage with. 

5. Is there any social proof?

As human beings, we imitate so much of the behaviour around us. It's why we dress the same, eat the same food, and do the same activities.

But why is social proof important? In a word; risk. If other people have shared something then there is less risk of us looking bad if we share it. 

So how can we get this to work for us?

The key point here is that you want to get as many shares on your content as early as possible. Whether you get that through seeding or paid promotion is up to you, but the general principle is the more shares you have, the more shares you get.

6. Does your content have practical value

Sigh of relief for all content marketers. People share practical, useful content. The reason people share this type of content is less about looking good, more about helping others to save time, money or effort. This video how to shuck corn has been watched over 7m times!

Pro Tip: Practical content is shareable, but in recent research from Dr Karen Feld, it was found to be not as shareable as emotional content.

7. What size of audience are you targeting?

Do you know the size of the audience you're targeting? There is an interesting judgement call to make here; if your content is targeted broadly, it has greater potential to be shared. However if you're content appeals to a narrower audience it is often more viral, because it appeals to a specific group. The perfect situation is to hit the sweet spot; large enough to go viral, but not too large.

A great example of content that has hit the sweet spot is 'The evolution of western dance music'. It's targeted to people that love dance music, which speaks to a specific audience, but is still a huge market. Hence why it's been shared over 150k times!

However, if you're a big brand and your objectives are a target of 1m+ views, then  you're going to need to target more broadly. Like this:

8. Do you have a great story?

People love to tell stories. As a content marketer, if you can harness the power of this, you can increase the virality of your content. It can be difficult to see how you can do this, but it can be done:

Dove's real beauty campaign was a classic example of this. I don't want to go into the background story, but a powerful emotional story has the capacity to make a piece of content go viral.

Pro Tip: You might not be able to get a story directly into your content piece, but through the outreach you  do to PR's and bloggers, can you thread the story in to give your content the best chance of success.

9. How good is your title/headline/social share copy?

A massive bottleneck to the virality of your content is the message people see when they're exposed to it.

It doesn't matter how good your content is. If you don't make your messaging compelling enough to click and share, nobody will know your content exists.

There are two ways to approach writing this copy. Both methods have one objective; get people to click.

Method 1: 'Intrigue'. Social headlines should have a curiosity gap. You need to stimulate interest so that people just have to click!

A Public Service Announcement On Behalf Of All White Dudes

Method 2: 'Inform'. Can you show an obvious educational benefit to the reader?

How to Consistently Build 40+ Contextual Links Every Month

Pro Tip: Keep an Evernote swipe file of all the titles and messaging you love. Then use elements of those titles when you're launching your own content. Another way to do this is to send the content round the office, and introduce a sweepstake to see who comes up with the best title. Crowdsourcing title ideas FTW.

10. Targeted to the right audience

Is your content targeted to viewers who actually share content online? 
There's two dimensions to targeting the right audience:
  • targeting the right audience in the first place
  • targeting people within that group who are likely to share (seeding)
A great example of targeting content to the right sort of people comes from Wait But Why. They're targeting Generation Y, highly social active, hence relative success.

11. Do you have enough budget/time for outreach

In Dr Karen Feld's book 'Viral Marketing; The Science of Sharing' paid distribution was shown to significantly increase the chances and level of social traction.
If your content is only seen by a few people, it can only be shared by a few people. 

Be prepared to spend money on content promotion to maximise success.

Pro Tip: 25% of shares occur in the first 3 days of a piece of content going live, so it's really important that you plan your initial launch to be as high impact as possible.

12.Not too controversial!

Interestingly (and something I'd noticed but never understood), viral content that is controversial only works up to a level. People love to talk, but they don't want to talk about things that are too controversial. Probably for fear of causing offence.

Hence the success of pieces of content like this:

13. Is it easy to share?

This sounds incredibly simple, but are you using the right social buttons? Have you ever tested to see what works best? You should also be making use of facebook open graph and twitter v cards, so that you're getting the right message shared on social to increase the chance of virality.

14. Is it related to your brand?

There's nothing worse than a piece of content marketing that is completely unrelated to your brand. It is essential that you have defined your target audience for the content and that there is a genuine link between what you are doing and your brand. 

Pro Tip: How can you tie your brand to an emotional message? A great example of this is Google's current advertising campaign. They're a search engine. That's pretty dull. But what they give users the power to do is pretty incredible, as this advert shows...


In conclusion, there are no guarantees of virality. But by analysing past viral successes, there are specific things that can be built into your content to increase the chances of it going viral.

N.B. A lot of the ideas in this post were taken from 'Contagious: Why Things Catch On', so if you want to learn more about the topic of viral ideas, I highly recommend you read it.

Let me know in the comments about any viral campaigns that you've come across that you really like...

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