Why things go viral: The not-100-percent-but-really-close formula

It's not hard, but it's not *that* easy.
It’s not hard, but it’s not *that* easy.

There’s not a content producer out there who thinks, “I hope this won’t go viral,” when they hit the publish button. But if everyone wants their content to go viral, why don’t we see more viral stuff? That’s because not everyone has it figured out yet. Wharton professor Jonah Berger said it best to Forbes:

“There’s not 100% certainty” that a given product or concept will go viral. “It’s like a batting average in baseball; no one hits a home run every time. But it’s also not luck. By understanding the science of word of mouth, you improve your average.”

Berger identifies six factors that contribute to virality:

  • Does it make you look good?
  • Are you reminded of it?
  • Does it make you feel something?
  • Are others seeing it?
  • Is it useful?
  • Is it memorable?

Oreo Rainbow CookieLet’s think about which reasons are behind a few viral campaigns. Oreo gained a lot of attention with their pro-LGBT rights campaign. That photo got more than 90,000 shares — and that’s not counting the people who uploaded the photo on their own instead of clicking the share button. Why? Because people want to weigh in and show their peers that they stand (or don’t stand) behind the cause that Oreo very powerfully illustrated with their rainbow cookie. The content of the photo affirms something about the sharer. And the photo also evokes some strong emotions in those who would share it.

Speaking of powerful illustrations, a recent Chipotle commerical also played into people’s values to get shares and hit viral status. The beautiful and longer-than-TV-commercial ad definitely makes viewers feel something, even if you’re not a fan of Chipotle’s food (but who isn’t?).

In general, content that elicits positive reaction is more viral that ones than ones that produce negative reaction. As Social Triggers points out, there are lots of unhappy people in the world, so positive content that lifts the spirits is always going to be popular.

The Wordstream team produced a study comparing Facebook’s and Google’s advertising options that went viral thanks to good timing (just a few days before the Facebook IPO) and general usefulness. As news outlets looked for reasons to explain why GM dropped its Facebook ads, they found the study. Before long, all major media outlets were citing the research, and the study was officially viral. This one doesn’t really make you feel strong emotions, but it is very informative and hit on a timely topic.

What was the last piece of viral content you shared? Keeping these reasons in mind, what made you share it?

Have you ever produced content that went viral? Which of these reasons describe why your content was so popular?


6 thoughts on “Why things go viral: The not-100-percent-but-really-close formula”

  1. Hi Julie.

    Most of the viral content that I share is related to Yoga. I always share Rachel Brathen’s sun salutation videos on my Facebook page. If she posted them on Twitter I would favorite and retweet like there is no tomorrow. She produces quality content that is easily shared, interesting, and addictive. She also posts pictures that wouldn’t necessarily go viral, however, she has such a large following on all of her social media accounts that it just happens. Not to mention she acknowledges the few negative comments she receives with clever, funny comments of her own. It’s a win-win for Rachel. You should check her out on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube and LinkedIn.

  2. As far as sheer numbers, I wouldn’t classify the content I’ve produced as viral. But there was a tweet I sent to Adam a few weeks ago that was re-tweeted by him and another of his followers, so I guess you can classify that as viral. I had to tweet it based on our assignment for that week. My other recent post that went viral was a picture of my college diploma. It played to the emotions of people who were happy for me that I completed the degree.

  3. I’m a fan of numerous TV shows and follow them on Facebook. So when they post something that I think is funny or worth sharing, I often will. I have friends that enjoy the shows as well, so I figure it won’t be too bad in the event they see the post. I do make conscious decisions I what I choose to share, as I often do not want to be too irritating to those who are my friends.

    The Bookstore page has a loyal fan following, believe it or not, for pre-game limericks. They’re not quite as viral as what big businesses get, but for a weekly posting, we do well. I think it’s popular because of where it’s being posted. We know that we have a fan base of people interested in the same thing (Notre Dame football) and rooting for the team. It is fun to see when people share the limerick though, I won’t lie.

    1. I follow lots of TV shows, too, and definitely don’t feel bad about sharing news and updates because lots of my friends share my interests. The Bookstore updates sound cool! I’m sure you make lots of fans’ days with those limericks, and it’s great that you’re getting so many shares from them!

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