The Ultimate Guide To Creating Viral Content

All of us have witnessed the phenomenon of the viral video first hand. From the days of the Numa Numa guy on YouTube to the latest Volkswagen ad, we now know that there is value to be had if our content is viewed by large numbers of (hopefully interested) people.

But video is not the only kind of content that can go viral; there have been many blog posts, forum comments, infographics and images that have traveled virally too.

Every marketer understands the potential that exists with the internet, but creating content that travels virally is no easy feat; it depends on a large number of humans having a related emotional reaction to your content.

Many marketers have been quick to point out that it is impossible to “create” viral content and that virality is not a product in itself but an effect. A viral reaction to an image/blog post or a video can occur, but the content cannot be viral through its very nature.

But Is That True? Is It Possible To “Create” Viral Content?

Within this guide to making viral content, we will be covering the following:

  1. What is virality and why do people share content?
  2. Understanding, and then charming, your customers with your content.
  3. Some case studies of past viral content.
  4. A suggested process for making content that will be shared.

We will be using some academic studies, which include a variety of real life examples, and then blending these with a few creative ideas to try to give you as much clear guidance as possible.

This is not meant to be a step-by-step guide to creating content that will go viral. The aim is to discover if it is possible to plan and create content that will go viral and then give you some clear pointers on where to start. We cannot just give you a step-by-step guide as creating great content must be approached differently for every business.

The outcome should be that you have a clearer direction on where to take your digital marketing plan in order to get higher levels of engagement.

What Is Virality, And Why Do People Share Content?

Predicting what content will go viral is tough to achieve – there are many pieces of great content that have gone viral and plenty that have gone nowhere, so what are the differences? And what commonalities (if any) do the pieces of content that have gone viral share?

Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman of the Wharton Business School carried out a study titled “Social Transmission, Emotion, and the Virality of Online Content” in 2010.

The research involved studying every article in The New York Times over a 3-month period – a total of 7000 articles. In addition, they ran detailed laboratory controlled experiments with individuals.

The goal was to uncover the emotional sentiment hidden in the articles that were shared the most to see if there were any patterns. Then following this, they used the controlled laboratory experiments to manipulate and measure arousal in humans in order to study how this affected social sharing.

The research paper is well worth a read if you are interested in the psychology of social sharing and the emotions that trigger a viral response, as it will help you to write better blog posts, tweets, Facebook updates, Adwords ads, etc.

What Berger and Milkman found was that:

  • Positive content is more viral than negative content (but it is a lot more complex than just this).
  • The key to social sharing is the level of arousal of the viewer/reader – the more highly aroused they are (positively or negatively), the more active they are in sharing content; even content that is unrelated to the cause of their mood.
  • Positive content that inspires surprise, amusement and awe is shared more.
  • Negative content that inspires anger and anxiety is shared more.
  • Content that inspires low emotional arousal (sadness) is less viral.
  • People share content in the hope that it will raise their social standing, generate reciprocity (i.e. to get something tangible or not in return) and simply to help others.

Berger and Mlilkan controlled the results for factors such as page published, length of exposure, notoriety of writer etc in order to ensure that it was just the nature of the content and the feeling that it inspired in the reader that they were comparing.

Here is a key quote from the research paper:

“Consistent with the notion that people share content to entertain others, surprising and interesting content is highly viral. Similarly, consistent with the notion that people share to inform others, or boost their mood, practically useful and positive content is more viral. These effects are all consistent with the idea that people may share valuable content to help others, generate reciprocity, or boost their reputation (e.g., show they know entertaining or useful things).”

Here are key take away’s for marketers:

If virality can be understood through the emotional state of the sharer, and how aroused they are, then video content (and written content) can be prepared by marketers to evoke the right emotions.

In simple terms: you should not be playing it too safely. In order to evoke high levels of arousal such as awe, surprise, amusement, anger or anxiety, you are going to need to be pushing the boundaries and giving something highly original.

Understanding, And Then Charming Your Customers

Now that we have some understanding of why people share content, in order to make this post more practically useful, I want to look into how you can create content that fascinates and arouses your customers enough for them to share it.

The book Fascinate, by Sally Hogshead takes the reader through 7 triggers that persuade and captivate humans.

Hogshead developed the 7 Personality Triggers based on over five years of proprietary research on fascination, including the first-ever marketing research study specifically about how people and brands become more fascinating, which was conducted by Kelton Research.

Here is an introductory video:

And, here are the 7 triggers of fascination:

1. Passion/Lust

Individuals and companies with the passion trigger make fast connections with others and inspire a close relationship with customers. Do you remember the first time you walked into the Apple store and your mouth started watering over the latest Mac? That was lust. Humans get the same mouth watering physiological effect with food, sex and many other products/services that create an anticipation of pleasure.

For a marketer to use lust Hogshead tells us that you need to tap into the 5 senses; you need to tease people’s passions, to pique their interest. There is a need for constant adaptation as passions can quickly run dry. Be creative.

2. Alarm

Alarm is the instinct we all have that used to keep us alive in more primitive times – the fight or flight instinct – losing your child on a crowded beach or meeting Freddie Kruger late at night. People prefer to avoid problems, so the alarm trigger can be used to show people the negative consequences of inaction in order to inspire a fast action. FedEx has combined trust (another trigger) with alarm (it cannot be late!!) to create a winning business. Marketers should define consequences and then create deadlines. This is all about leveraging fear.

3. Mystique

Mystique is all about holding something back and not revealing it. There is curiosity in lack of fulfillment. Hogshead says that there are 4 ways to trigger mystique: spark curiosity, withhold information, build mythology, and limit access.

Mystique is about telling stories and not giving facts – the secret ingredient in Coca-Cola is hidden in a vault, and according to myth only 2 people know the whole list of ingredients.

4. Power

Sometimes people do not want to be in control; they want to relinquish control to others. A good example of this is the personal trainer at the gym. Another example is a digital marketer. Many small business owners want to concentrate on their core business and delegate their digital marketing to an agency so that they do not have to think about it. Another example is the sommelier at a fancy restaurant. We often relinquish control to others due to their status.

5. Prestige

Prestige is all about perceived respect. People often obsess over symbols of rank and respect. People aim to achieve high standards and tangible evidence of their success; this may be a high salary, a simple thank you or a present/gift. There are great examples of prestige on all supermarket shelves. Why do you pay more for the branded product than the supermarket own brand? Why can a Tiffany engagement ring sell for twice the price of a similar ring? In order to leverage the prestige trigger of fascination you need to limit availability, increase the price so that accessibility is decreased (although you have to live up to the promise in the higher price). This all takes nerves of steel and a long-term investment in your brand.

6. Rebellion/Vice

We all like to break the rules sometimes, to do things differently. Vice is the desire you get when you are told that you cannot have something. Monica Lewinsky managed to launch a handbag line following her flirtation with vice.

Look how Apple used rebellion in their “Think Different” campaign when they were lagging behind Microsoft.

Hogshead says that we should start by tweaking established expectations in order to trigger vice. She gives the example that a normally boring electronics company could create a set of headphones with a “road to deafness” volume setting in order to “softly” trigger vice.

7. Trust

Trust comes through familiarity and predictability. Messages should be repeated and retold; they should be consistent, reliable and clear. McDonald’s has trust as their strongest trigger. Personally, I am not a fan but I do trust that I will get what I expect if I were to visit a McDonald’s restaurant. The same goes for Starbucks.

Eliminate all sense of uncertainty, chaos or surprise.

Hogshead’s research helps you to not only understand others, also to understand yourself and your business and how others perceive you. It also helps you to understand how to leverage the triggers of fascination to grow your business.

You can read more on the 7 Triggers of Fascination at Sally’s website howtofascinate.com/

Here are key take aways for marketers:

You need to fully understand your business/brand before you can apply the triggers of persuasion effectively.

You need to understand your two strongest triggers and then leverage them in your content and messaging.

Besides being a neccessary step of building your company culture, in order to make your marketing more viral, you should define your purpose and your core beliefs. Look into your heritage and history, the products and services you sell, how you conduct yourself and how your team conducts themselves as well as the broader culture of your organization.

Case Studies Of Past Viral Content

In order to help you put these theories into context, we have included some specific examples of content that has been shared prolifically. The idea is that you will be able to connect the theory to the practice and then relate this back to your specific business.

A good place to start is Facebook’s list of the most shares articles on their site in 2011.

most shared articles on facebook 2011

There are a few points of interest on the top ten shown in the image above:

  1. Sources of content are all major news sites.
  2. 3 articles are about animals.
  3. 2 articles are on personal relationships.
  4. Japan is featured twice due to the earthquake and its aftermath.

This is interesting to see, but I feel that the usefulness for the vast majority of publishers is limited – these sites won because they are massive media powerhouses. What about smaller businesses? What content has worked for them in their niches?

I decided to take a look at a niche that relates to many of the readers at KISSmetrics – the digital marketing field. I then picked one of the highest traffic sites in that niche – Search Engine Land, and dug around to find their most read and shared posts of 2011. Luckily, they had done the legwork for me by writing up a piece themselves.

They had a piece on the most popular SEO posts of 2011.

The most interesting things about these 25 posts were:

  • 8 of the 25 posts were guides with the words “How to” in the post title.
  • Another 14 of the posts were guides to subjects.
  • The remaining 3 were commentary on a specific topic of interest.

This was the most popular post: (http://searchengineland.com/an-seo-playbook-for-2012-103906.)

It has received:

  • 1,079 tweets
  • 115 Google+ shares
  • 321 Facebook likes
  • 629 Linkedin shares
  • 8 Pinterest shares

The main thing here is that the most successful content was that which fulfilled the user’s primary needs best; Search Engine Land is a blog that people go to for help and advice on search marketing; although the site carried plenty of news on the latest changes at Google or what is going on at other core websites or with industry folks, the main areas of interest are on getting practical things done – professionals going for professional help.

Let’s move on to some viral video examples…

Charlie Bit My Finger

First up on the video front, Charlie bit my finger – with over 400 million views. Regardless of how old hat this is, it does need a mention.

So why did this piece of content go viral?

Going back to the study on sharing, this is positive content that provides amusement – people shared it because it made them smile and think “Ahhh isn’t that cute.” Although we are well over it now, Charlie’s brother Harry’s reaction still makes us giggle when Charlie bites a little too hard for his liking.

In terms of the triggers of fascination, the two that I feel are most at play here are vice – we enjoy watching Charlie’s older brother Harry react cutely to the pain Charlie inflicts upon him. In fact, we find it funny that his brother hurt him. Secondly, there is trust – it is a safe video that can be enjoyed by all and cannot possibly offend. It has now allowed the parents to release an app (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/04/16/charlie-bit-my-finger-app-for-apple-android-products_n_1428871.html) on both Apple and Android platforms that allows users to create their own Charlie moments. It is predictable and safe as expected – people know that the “Charlie bit my finger” brand is safe and reliable – we trust it.

Here is the original video:

If you search http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OBlgSz8sSM in Google then you will see that there are 14,200 results for this video.

There are:

  • A huge number of parodies and take off videos from Youtube
  • Blogs linking to it (just like this one).
  • Social media shares on Reddit, Digg, Delicious etc.

Also, if you search on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/search/%22Charlie%20bit%20my%20finger%22, you will find many recent results still talking about the original video 5 years. The parents have now earned close to $500,000 from the revenues through Youtube as well as press and television appearances.

Dollar Shave Club

Now for something a little different: Dollar Shave Club: Our Blades are F***ing Great.

This had me in stitches the first time I watched it. Not only does it clearly sell the product to their target market of men, it is also very funny and daring.

Humor is the key to why this video has been shared so many times; people like to show their friends the things that they find funny. Dollar Shave Club has taken risks with their brand by using swear words and making light of efficiencies on the factory production line.

The brand uses vice and perhaps also a certain amount of alarm (the focus on price as well as not forgetting to buy razors).

And, the results:

In just over 2 months, they have picked up 4.6 million views on Youtube, 4,257 comments and 43,285 likes.

On Google, there are 3,380 mentions of the video for a search on “v=ZUG9qYTJMsI%22”.

Again, the video has been featured on hundreds of blogs, social bookmarking sites (Reddit has over 1,000 reddits); and it has been shared prolifically on Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter.

There are hundreds of mentions on Twitter – and this does not include any users who have converted to a short URL:

https://twitter.com/#!/search/%22v=ZUG9qYTJMsI%22

In terms of financial results, they got 5,000 sign ups on the first day after the video was released, before the site broke due to the weight of the traffic (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-03-12/dollar-shave-clubs-founder-yes-i-am-a-funny-guy).

The video cost $4,500 to make.

Official Ojai Valley Taxidermy TV Commercial

This is brilliant. A small local business has achieved close to 12 million views over 9 months.

The video was produced by Youtubers Rhett and Link (http://www.youtube.com/rhettandlink). These are two very creative and funny guys – you should check out their channel.

Obviously, again, the core to this video’s success is the humor – people love to share funny stuff. However, in terms of brand values and how they fascinate the audience. We do not feel that there is a clear connection between the business and the video. It is just a great awareness driver that builds audience retention of the business owner’s name.

Watch this “kids react” reaction to the video (which itself has had over 2 million views):

There were 23,700 results on Google when I searched “v=LJP1DphOWPs” and again, from a very wide range of sites. Part of the virality here is that Chuck Testa has become a bit of a star; there are 11,900 results on Google just for the name “Chuck Testa”.

Something that needs to be mentioned at this point is that Rhett and Link have 874,000 subscribers to their Youtube channel and are well known on Youtube for comedy, so they are in a position to give a video a great boost in the early stages of its life.

Something that we do not have time to go into on this post is the marketing of content and how that should be handled in order to give it the best chance of achieving a viral effect.

Of course, the content needs to be special, but of equal importance is the authority of the users that are involved in the promotion of the content; there are many ways to get help in promoting content, but that is for a later post.

How To Increase The Virality Of Your Content

Creating content that will be shared is difficult, make no mistake, but it is the planning that is the most difficult step – the content itself may be very simple. Here are some suggested steps to take in order to make content that will work.

Understand who your audience is

  • You need to spend some time looking at your database to understand what your typical customers have in common. This could include age, gender, geographical location, role in company, average income, etc. – unless you can afford to splash out on something like Experian Mosaic, then this will involve some hard digging and ultimately some assumptions.
  • Spend a day with your customer services team trying to understand exactly what pleases and displeases your customers; listen in on calls to understand the typical mindset of your customer.
  • Also, social media accounts are great for understanding your audience. Use Facebook Insights to see which of your updates have been shared the most, and you could also take a random subsection of the people who have liked your page and check out their profiles.
  • For a more detailed (and quicker) view, you can use a service like Fliptop (http://www.fliptop.com/) to get personal information on your social contacts.

Create a written caricature of your typical customer.

This sounds fluffy, I know; the type of thing that an overpaid brand marketing agency might do for you that will be widely ignored within your business.

No, this is different. When creating good content I always believe that it helps to have a specific friend, acquaintance or known person in mind. This helps me to:

  • Tone the content correctly
  • Go into the right level of detail
  • Understand possible objections (if we are looking at sales content).

If I haven’t completely lost your confidence at this point then this is what I think you need to know about your caricature (friend):

  • All the demographic info you collected – age and gender etc
  • What makes them laugh?
  • What makes them angry?
  • What famous person do they look up to and admire?
  • Where do they want to go on vacation?
  • What did they do last Saturday?

These are just a few suggestions from me, but the idea is to understand what makes your subject tick.

The (guessed) answers to these types of questions will help you to get a clear picture in your head of who you are creating content for.

Determine where your customers hang out

  • What websites do they frequent – If you run re-marketing campaigns on Google Adwords, then you can run a placement report to find out where your website visitors go. Here is a post detailing how to do this (http://deepfootprints.co.uk/online-marketing/ppc/google-display-network-targeting/).
  • If you do not use re-marketing on Google Adwords, then you can look at your referral traffic in Google Analytics to get a good idea, although this will not show you the opportunities that you are currently missing.

Determine what type of message you want to communicate and the best medium to use.

  • If you are creating content for very visually sensitive people then perhaps images, infographics and animations will work well.
  • If you are creating for an older group of people then they may be less time poor and also less easily distracted so longer written content may work well.
  • I would say this, but in most cases video can be used effectively.

Determine which of the triggers of fascination you are going to hit upon.

  • First what is the goal of your content? Greater brand awareness? Greater trust in your organization, higher sales, to kill off some nasty rumors that are floating around, to reduce the current burden on customer services through better information.
  • Use the above information and also spend some time on Sally Hogshead’s site to understand how you map your customer’s profile to the fascination triggers, as well as to understand what trigger should be used to help you achieve your goal.

Make your content.

  • This part is the trickiest of the lot, and the worst thing is that you have to do it on your own; this is where the hand holding stops and you have to put your neck on the line.

Watch this address by Neil Gaiman for inspiration:

Take risks, have fun and when you consider that you may have gone too far in exposing yourself, then you are probably in the right place.

Of course, you need others to sense check your work. BUT there is a difference between being sensible and being overly cautious. You need to create something you are confident of and then sell it internally to get past the gatekeepers. If you are getting some resistance through fear, then this is usually a good sign.

Content that has the potential to go viral can be created. I also believe that if you get the marketing plan right then you can leverage the internet to achieve a viral effect. But the distribution side of this is for another day.

About the Author: Neil Davidson is the Founder of My Web Presenters, who are a leading web video production company specializing in web presenters. They work with businesses of all sizes to create and market compelling and emotive videos. They also write video marketing blog regularly so please check it out.

  1. Holy valuable content! Nice work on this post — amazing. I need to go through it a few more times to let it all sink in — and to take notes — but I can’t wait to start testing some of these ideas for myself and my clients.

  2. Great Post Could You Also write an article on how to write ever green articles ?

  3. Greatly appreciate the article! You clearly took your own advice when crafting it ;) (I rarely read articles longer than a few paragraphs)

  4. Wow, that’s a ton of good advice.

    I’ll add one great video into the mix – Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s trend manager on “Why videos go viral”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpxVIwCbBK0

    He makes a great observation on the importance of tastemakers who take great content and make it “viral.”

    • Thanks Peter
      Yes, that is a great video too and he does make a good point on the tastemakers. This article is really on the creation side rather than the marketing of the content which is why I did not cover it. With almost all content that has traveled quickly there have been a number of bloggers, news sites, celebrities or industry experts who have helped to snowball the piece to success. It could happen solely through individuals with few contacts but as simple mathematics and also the details in this article display it makes it a hell of a lot easier.

  5. Great post but there is nothing on promoting the content, this is the hardest part.

  6. I walked into this thinking it would be pre-tty pithy. Thanks for the strong analysis (and really great examples). Sharing with all of my friends who run startups

  7. viral content idea is new to me.Thanks for introducing such a useful topics. I will apply it .I think it will be effective to bring more traffic on website

  8. Awesome post, now you’ve got the creative juices flowing around in my head …. i can visualise the satisfaction not just of producing my personal masterpiece but seeing the traffic coming to find it.

  9. Social media is the best way to capture the attention of thousands if not millions of users. Facebook and Youtube have made it easier for companies to attract interest from users of these sites. A brilliant advertising campaign via the use of social media can attract wide spread attention from users all around the world. If done successfully a clever campaign can increase the popularity of a brand and in turn can lead to an increase in sales and profits.

  10. Gr8 information.Really beneficial :)

  11. Excellent post man!
    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful post with us,keep on posting.

  12. That’s why Google & Webmasters says Content is a King :)

  13. Jeff Gonzalez beauty schools Dec 10, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    The passion and lust in content are critical to ensuring that a blog goes ultimately viral. I love the way that this article emphasizes this as its number one point. Does anyone else think this should be number 1?

  14. If we talking about social media then it is a best way to get traffic on your site,such as facebook, twitter, linkedin, Stumbleupon and many others.its help to get more traffic on your site.

  15. I totally agree with you that content can be viral also if written well. Previously people think that only videos, images and infographic can be viral but now its proven that content also can be viral. You have given very useful tips and tactics for creating viral content in this post.

  16. Great post Neil, I needed this!!! Have to read it several times so the info can really sink in.

  17. Really Content is important for getting traffic on your site.

  18. great and long content, it is always a pleasure to read kissmetrix posts :)

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