What makes content go viral?


October 7, 2013 by EmilyCRios

We’ve all seen a video that has gone viral or shared a meme of Gif that seems to be everywhere online, but what is it that makes content go viral?

According to digital strategist Mark Smiciklas, online sharing is driven by five factors: scarcity, share buttons, skimability, practical utility and consistency.

Infographic highlights five key elements of viral content: scarcity, share buttons, skim-ability, practical utility and consistency.

Infographic highlights five key elements of viral content: scarcity, share buttons, skim-ability, practical utility and consistency.

Professor Jonah Berger takes these ideas one step further. In “How to Create Viral Content,” Forbes contributor Dorie Clark discusses Berger’s book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On and that Berger believes there are six common factors that can lead to virality which are:

  1. Social Currency (does it make you look good?)
  2. Triggers (are you reminded of it often?)
  3. Emotion (does it make you feel something?)
  4. Publicness (are others seeing it?)
  5. Practical Value (is it useful?)
  6. Stories (is there a memorable narrative?).

According to Clark, Berger believes “It’s about building a message that everyone can share, rather than finding special people and convincing them to talk about your product.”

While the message is always important when it comes to getting content to go viral there seems to be an agreement that it is all about getting people to feel something emotionally.

In “The Secret Recipe for Viral Content Marketing Success” Kelsey Libert writes that “Emotions drive almost all behavior… A great deal of your decisions are informed by your emotional responses because that is what emotions are designed to do … The stronger the feeling, the more likely to spur a responsive action”

But what emotions should a content creator seek to evoke?

Derek Halpern feels that there are seven high-arousal emotions that can cause content to go viral which are awe, anger, anxiety, fear, joy, lust and surprise. These emotions make people feel something and when you feel these emotions you are more likely to want to talk about whatever made you feel them.

Viral content can be a simple image that makes you laugh or it can be something that ermahgerd-bunny2is meant to spur you to action. The nearly 30 minute long Kony 2012 YouTube video put out by Invisible Children was a viral sensation in 2012 gaining 100 million views in less than a week. The video tells the story of Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony whose group is known for kidnapping children and forcing them to be soldiers. Regardless of whether people agree or disagree with Invisible Children the Kony 2012 video was a definite viral success. Instead of just having a campaign where the evilness of Kony was presented Invisible Children created a video that was of a father telling his young son about the evils of the world. The video set out to evoke a sense of anger of the cruelties that can exist in the world and a trigger a response that people can take action to create change.


What types of viral content do you respond to (like, share) more? Why do you think that is?

What types of emotions are you most like to respond to when it comes to viral content?



8 thoughts on “What makes content go viral?

  1. I’m definitely a sucker when it comes to watching emotional viral content! I love YouTube videos that claim there’s no way you can make it through them without crying…I don’t know what that says about me! Despite my love for happy tears, I’m most likely to share viral content that is funny. The world is serious enough, so I like to make people laugh when I can.

    • EmilyCRios says:

      I am the type of person who rarely shows emotion in front of others, but despite that I still love watching videos on YouTube that I know will bring me to tears. There is something about happy tears that just make me feel good and that anything is possible. Funny content is also what I am most likely to share because I like when things are light and fun and sometimes that is what people need.

  2. lesleygeyer says:

    I am with Lauren, emotional video content is what gets me! I recently spent an embarrassingly long time watching YouTube videos of soldiers returning from overseas. I also love funny content. I think people want to see and share things that make them feel good.

    • EmilyCRios says:

      I definitely agree that people want to see things that make them feel good. I have to avoid YouTube unless I know i have time to spare because I find that once I watch one video I just keep clicking on similar videos especially if they make me feel any type of emotion.

  3. lutt09 says:

    Hi Emily –

    I completely agree with the other two – emotional and uplifting videos and photos are my weakness! I think we all deserve a little extra “feel-good” moment in our day, so I’m much more likely to share something that does this than an educational or news piece. Furthermore, I’m not one for controversy or inducing anger, so I tend to steer away from anything political or too “off the beaten path.”

    I’m right there with Lesley – I spend entirely too much time crying my eyes out watching soldiers coming home and seeing their babies and puppies!


    • EmilyCRios says:

      I completely agree that people deserve “feel-good” moments in their day. Sometimes it feels like we are constantly bombarded with negative images that you almost need to take a break to laugh/smile over something even if it is completely ridiculous. I have always been interested in politics, but I rarely post things related to it on my social media accounts because I hate posting something and then having to deal with people arguing back and forth on my page.

  4. Ahh any time I see a dog jumping on a returning soldier, I immediately start crying!!

    But, the type of viral content I typically share is either:
    1. Useful content, usually related to social media, marketing or PR/writing, that I think my classmates will enjoy. I also share it so that I may remember it better if I want to go back and reread the content.
    2. Funny content. I hate not knowing what people are talking about online, so I usually will check out viral content that my peers are discussing, which is typically humorous stuff. Like silly videos like “Double Rainbow” or great articles from Buzzfeed. I share funny viral content so I can stay up to date in the social conversations people are having.

    • EmilyCRios says:

      I love when content that goes viral is useful to me when it comes to work or school. I’ve loved following all my classmates on social media because, even if it is just for an assignment, everyone is posting a variety of things that i’m finding useful, but may not necessarily find on my own.

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