Why You Should Be Making Your Content Viral and How to Do It

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Content Writing

I talk about Jonah Berger’s studies on virality, and how they can be applied in everyday marketing to make your content better.

For those who prefer to listen: Coming Soon


It’s every marketer’s dream – to make content go viral.  Just imagine it.  Something you created – a video, a blog post, a picture – that’s positioned to deliver a hard-hitting branding message suddenly catches the attention of the Internet.

It takes off.  Suddenly, your content is being spread.

Not a few shares here and there on social, paid for with too much ad spend, but purely organic distribution.

People love what you’ve created so much that they’re going out of their way to make sure their friends and family see it.  And every new set of eyes on your content means greater brand exposure.  All for free, and all for minimal effort on your part.

Here’s the problem: people won’t do something just because you want them to. That’s the rationale behind content marketing – give people value for free, and you’ll give them a reason to keep reading/watching things you put out.  The same logic backs up good sales techniques.  You don’t sell, you solve the customer’s problem with your product/service.

So apply that concept to sharing.  Why should people share your content?  How does sharing your stuff help them?

Berger and Milkman: Emotions

Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, has written extensively about virality.  In a 2012 study published in ‘What Makes Online Content Viral?’, he and fellow academic Katherine L. Milkman offer two key reasons:

  • People share useful information. They do this because:
    • It can help others (altruistic reasons)
    • Because it benefits them in some way, such as making them appear knowledgeable (self-enhancement purposes)
  • People also share emotionally charged information. Shareability can be affected by valence and arousal (i.e., whether it’s positive or negative, and the intensity of that positivity/negativity)

Those reasons aren’t ground-breaking, but they’re something we often forget as marketers.  We get wrapped up in buyer’s cycles and keywords, in trends and cautious self-promotion, and sometimes the basics are neglected.

Think about, for example, external links.  They’re useful for SEO, but we don’t just link to random sites.  We link to high-quality content that we think will help our readers.  The same goes for climate change or social equality or political scandal – these things go viral because people care about them.  There’s an emotional resonance there that elicits an inclination to hit that all-important ‘Share’ button.

‘Useful’ is fairly self-explanatory, but I think the emotional aspect of virality deserves more examination.

Berger and Milkman found that high-arousal emotions (anger, anxiety and awe) result in greater social transmission, while low-arousal emotions (sadness) result in lowered social transmission.  Positive content is generally shared more than negative content, but, ultimately, the level of arousal was found to be the most important factor.

So, when conceiving content, try to keep to these guidelines:

  • Make it useful. If there’s no practical information to benefit readers, shareability decreases.  This is particularly important for content with low emotional arousal.
  • Aim for anger, anxiety or awe. All marketers involved with online management reputation know that negative PR is much more likely to snowball than positive PR – people love to complain, and they love to share that anger with others.  They want empathy for their situation, and they want to empathise with others they perceive to be victimised.

 Anxiety is arguably even more powerful.  Content that elicits fear of some kind – ‘Your House Might Contain Asbestos’ to ‘Are Your Work Habits Affecting Your Child’s Mental Health?’ – make people more inclined to read and share.

Berger and Milkman define awe as being “characterized by a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than oneself (e.g., a new scientific discovery, someone overcoming adversity)” (Berger and Milkman, 2012, p. 194).  Awe is also positive, which makes it a more sustainable emotion to fuel content with.  No-one wants to consume a constant stream of negativity.

My personal recommendation would be to mostly create positive content, with hard-hitting negative content where appropriate – think exposés that are both useful and generate a healthy combination of anger and anxiety.

  • Avoid sadness. If you’re thinking sob stories are going to encourage people to click and share, think again.  Berger and Milkman’s study indicates that even interesting stories that have a higher level of sadness are less likely to be shared.  Instead, try to spin stories that elicit sadness to be about resilience, determination and overcoming obstacles – this turns it into a feel-good, awe-inspiring article that is much more likely to gain social traction.  Alternatively, turn the story into one of outrage – don’t feel sad for this victim, feel angry for them, and do something about it.

The 6 STEPPS to Making Content Go Viral

Another very useful concept of Berger’s is STEPPS, an acronym that stands for:

  • Social Currency
  • Triggers
  • Emotion
  • Public Visibility
  • Practical Value
  • Stories

These are elaborated on in Contagious; Berger allocates a chapter’s worth of examples and applications to each, so I definitely recommend giving it a read.  For just AUD11.99 on Google Books, it’s a worthwhile investment if you’re looking to up your marketing.

Social Currency

Social currency is the social aspect of people sharing things with others.  Berger instructs us to “give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas along the way”.

This harks back to the self-enhancement reasons for sharing we talked about before.  Basically, people want to seem cool, to bring something interesting to the table.  If you can do that by making your product remarkable or conversation-worthy, then they’ll talk about it.

How can you generate social currency with content?

Basically, give readers a reason to share it.  Make it interesting, helpful and cool.

Remember that people don’t care about your product or service – if you write a blog explaining how your revolutionary new phone case stops breakages, don’t just talk about the shock absorption technologies, the flexible design and the patented waterproofing system.

Talk about some crazy statistics – how many times people drop their phones per year, how many result in breakages, how many phones get broken over a lifetime, how much money could you save by not breaking your phone.

This idea of ‘remarkability’ stems in large parts from pattern-breaking and surprises – if something defies expectations, it is more unusual, and therefore makes for better conversation.

Another way is via ‘game mechanics’ (where artificial ecosystems like frequent flyer points reward those who do well in them).

Potentially, the most obvious examples of this are actual computer games, where whole communities develop around rewards systems, economies and victories.  These intricate virtual worlds are the foundation of the video gaming industry, and can be integrated into your content through rewards tiers, interactive quizzes or bonuses for articles read.

An example: the Top Fan badge on Facebook, where relatively high engagement with a page leads to a virtual reward.  UGC is another good example – those who enter competitions, submit their photos, etc. are rewarded by being publicly shared.

“Make people feel like insiders” is Berger’s last tip for social currency minting, and it’s perhaps the easiest one.

Make people feel special.  Use ephemeral content, limit access to certain blog posts for subscribers only, give people personalised accounts, give them subscriber-only specials, and so on.

Cultivating exclusivity is difficult, but it’s also hugely rewarding when done right.

Triggers

I think the concept of triggers is Berger’s most interesting point.  To explain it very simply, a ‘trigger’ is something (an object, place, smell, sound, etc.) that a person subconsciously links with something else.  Each object has its own habitat of triggers.  To use one of Berger’s examples, traditional German music is linked to German alcohol.

The concept behind triggers in marketing is this: use triggers that consumers link to your product.

Berger talks about an experiment that was conducted in a liquor store – when the store played French music, more people bought French wine.  When it played traditional German music, more people bought German alcohol.

By using triggers, things associated with those triggers are brought to the forefront of the mind, which very often translates into action.  To borrow a handy quote from Berger, “top of mind means tip of tongue”.

I know I already recommended reading Contagious, but, if you’re going to only read a single chapter, the section of triggers is certainly the most worthwhile.  Berger offers a range of real-world experiments which seem to conclusively indicate that triggers work.

Importantly, there are two types of triggers: organic and artificial.

Organic triggers are those that occur naturally, such as peanut butter and jelly for Americans, or vegemite on toast for Australians.  Remember that organic triggers are not universal – different cultures, countries and demographics will have different associations.

A personal example (and perhaps one that other Australians share) is ‘Black Friday’, the start of the Christmas shopping season and a day of massive online sales.

For most of the world, I imagine, the words ‘Black Friday’ are triggers for online shopping and discounts.  For me, they also trigger thoughts of bushfires – the catastrophic Black Friday bushfires of 1939, and the equally lethal fires of Black Saturday in 2009.

This isn’t to say that you should base your trigger strategy on outliers who might have different associations, but it’s something to be mindful of.  Before you integrate an organic trigger into your marketing, make sure your target audience doesn’t hold a different association.

Artificial triggers are associations a brand has worked to create – Berger gives the example of how KitKat worked to make coffee a trigger for their product.

Artificial triggers are invaluable in shaping how brands are perceived, but creating them takes a huge amount of time, money and effort.  Reserve artificial triggers for bestselling products or the brand as a whole.  For campaigns or less important products, instead rely on organic triggers.

How can you use triggers in content?

For audio and video, using triggers is a lot easier.  You have a whole spectrum of triggers to play with – sounds, colours, settings, light, angles, and so on.  Any video producer who knows what they’re doing probably already has a good grasp of how these work.

Written content is a little harder.  I recommend a combination of subtlety and brute force.

Firstly, connotation.  Not a new concept to any writer.  Make sure your words have connotations which are appropriate for what you’re trying to accomplish.

For example, if you’re writing content for a perfume company, use ‘fragrance’ or ‘scent’ instead of ‘odour’.  I know that’s a very simple example, but getting the basics right is necessary for building a great piece of trigger content.

Second, scenarios.  These are a personal favourite.  I like to put the reader in a situation – a variation of problem, agitation and solution.

You paint a vivid, specific picture for them (the more relatable, the better).  It’s a problematic situation – to continue with the perfume example, you might paint a picture of a customer spraying a perfume before going to a party, and then finding, upon arrival, that the perfume has given her a rash because it uses so many toxic chemicals.

You would then go on to discuss your product, and how it won’t do that because it’s organic, chemical-free and so on.

Here’s the part where the trigger comes in: next time someone who has read your content goes to a function and goes to spray perfume on, the close similarity of that situation to the one they read will bring your article and therefore your product to top-of-mind.

But here’s the problem: you’re triggering them at the wrong time.  That pre-party situation might act as a trigger for your content, but it’s at a time when the customer is at home, rushed and needing perfume now.

  You need to trigger them well before then – when they’re thinking about buying perfume.  So you might conceive a different scenario, or even a second one: end the article with a situation where the customer is at the shops and buys your perfume.

That way, they’ll be triggered at a place and time (the shops) when your product is on-hand and available for purchase.  That’s what will elicit action.

Thirdly, CTAs.  If you have taglines or CTAs that reinforce your trigger (“Save your skin by putting Perfume X in your trolley”), don’t be afraid to use them.

Sometimes smacking readers across the head with obnoxiously obvious reminders is actually good – Berger gives an example similar to this which resulted in a 25% increase in consumer action.

Remember that while having multiple triggers is good, it’s equally important that each piece of content only addresses one trigger.  Having too much in one piece is confusing and clouds your messaging.

Emotion

“When we care, we share.”  It’s another of Berger’s deeply shareable quotes, and it neatly summarises his chapter on emotion as a catalyst for virality.

We already discussed emotion earlier in this article, and I believe this section of Contagious is actually based on the same Milkman and Berger study, so most of the information is virtually the same.  There is a useful chart at page 75/76 of the mobile version:

a table of emotional arousal from jonah berger's book contagious

How can you use emotion in content?

Arguably, implementing emotion into your content is both the easiest and hardest of the STEPPS.

Easy, because picking an angle or a story that is awe-inspiring, exciting, amusing, angering or frightening is fairly simple.

Hard, because picking an emotionally charged topic and delivering an emotionally-charged piece are two very different things.

Before I transitioned to marketing, I was heading towards a career in editing and publishing.  I did my degree in Creative Writing, which meant I got to read and edit a lot of stories from both professionals and amateurs.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen an interesting or exciting concept mangled into a terrible story, and I’ve read my fair share of superficially boring concepts that were turned into amazing stories.

It’s not the story, it’s the way you tell it.  The same goes for content.  Picking an emotional topic doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be able to make readers care.

Being a good writer is a necessity, and I don’t just mean a good creative writer or journalist.

Content writing is different.  Different layout, different style, different pacing, and a whole bunch of considerations that you don’t have when you’re simply telling a story.  You need to be both technically skilled (grammar, syntax, flow, etc.) and comfortable in the medium of online blogging.

If you’ve got that nailed, you’re halfway there.  A couple of other tips that are helpful:

Pacing

Pacing is critical for generating emotion.  Too fast, and there’s no build-up.  Too slow, and readers lose interest.

Relatability

A person being murdered in Australia makes for headline news on the Gold Coast.  A person being murdered in China probably won’t even get in the Gold Coast papers.

Why?  The person in China is less relatable than the person in Australia to residents of the Gold Coast.

Journalists use a similar concept called ‘proximity’.  The more closely your target audience can relate to your content, the more emotional heft it will have.

Focus

Don’t get side-tracked.  Keep things simple, and don’t meander away from your emotional focus.

For those in emotionally deficient fields like marketing, accounting or banking, you have two options.

Option 1: Ignore emotion.  Don’t even worry about trying to shoehorn it in.  After all, you don’t need to have every STEPP in your content to make it highly shareable.  Practical value is a good substitute for emotion, so, as long as your piece is helpful, virality is still on the horizon.

Option 2: Shoot for an emotional angle.  Do this by:

  • Relating a personal story that also hammers home a point about your product/service.
  • Start and end with a scenario that gives it an emotional angle (for example, a hotel company might start an article with a very short paragraph invoking wanderlust and current life dissatisfaction before segueing into how to maximise their loyalty programme.
  • Share a customer story of how your product/service changed their life (a common trend with anything health- and fitness-related. For example, an insurance company might paint a vivid story of how Karen’s life/marriage/finances were falling apart when her house caught fire.  She could have lost everything, but luckily she had insurance!  Now Karen is living in a nice new house and used the fire to give herself a fresh start – thanks, insurance company!)

The important thing to remember is that there is emotion underpins every aspect of human life.  There will be an emotional angle for your product or service, even if you have to broaden your scope and pull from your industry rather than your niche.

Public Visibility

Public visibility is a useful concept for products and services, but not so much in the context of content marketing.  It’s the idea that people imitate what they see others doing – in other words, social proof.

How can you use public visibility in content?

Because this really involves the product or service being in public use, the only ways I can think of to use it in your content marketing are testimonials, case studies and statistics.

You can strategically implement testimonials in appropriate areas of your content to show readers that other people have used you and found you helpful.

Case studies are even better: you helped this company, so you can probably help their company too.  By statistics, I mean backing up arguments in your content with hard facts – “83% of Brisbane tyre businesses use FineShine™ Tyre Shine, and you should too”.

Practical Value

I’m not going to spend much time on practical value, because it’s self-explanatory and fairly easy to implement.  If you’re offering unique, value-adding content that actually helps readers do something related to your product – to use this article as an example, I’m hopefully helping you write better content – then you’ve got it covered.  The more helpful it is, the better it will be received.

Stories

We know what stories are, but Berger recommends using them not just for entertainment, but also as a vessel for transmission.  He points out that stories and fables have always contained morals or lessons – for the purposes of marketing, replace the lesson with your product or service.

An excellent and recent example is Eliud Kipchoge’s record-breaking marathon run.

The story that every major news outlet ran?  About how he did it wearing Nike’s new Vaporfly shoes.

nike vaporfly shoes
The Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%

That, in turn, sparked a whole debate about whether or not the shoes should be banned, and was then hammered home when Ababel Yeshaneh broke another world record in Vaporflys.  The product became an essential part of the story, and, as a result, bought Nike invaluable space on people’s screens (and probably resulted in a flood of Vaporfly sales).

Create interesting stories (or find them), and then get them out there.

While there are ways to shoehorn this into content marketing, I personally think it’s better to approach this from a PR angle – share the story as ‘news’, and then approach journalists and media outlets to help transmit it.

It’s important to remember that journalists are just like us: they’re searching for content that is interesting, relevant and shareable.  If you can pitch a story to them that ticks those boxes and still manages to incorporate your brand, there’s really no reason they won’t share it.

Tight deadlines and the prevalence of 24-hour news cycles means media outlets are constantly looking for new content to put in front of their audiences, and a fully-formed story with all the research completed is very enticing.  There’s actually a name for this phenomenon – ‘churnalism’.

Churnalism is viewed negatively in journalistic circles, and, while I agree with their criticisms to an extent, it’s also an era of opportunities for marketers and PR practitioners.

Summary: How to Make Viral Content

These are the key points to keep in mind when writing content:

  • Make it interesting, unique and quirky (where appropriate).
  • Include both organic and artificial triggers.
  • Make it emotionally charged (where applicable).
  • Use other customers’ experiences as social proof (where appropriate).
  • Make it useful.
  • Use stories as transmission devices (where appropriate).
  • Try an 80:20 ratio of positive and negative pieces.
  • Avoid low-arousal emotions like contentment and sadness – instead, agitate, inspire or amuse.

As much as I’ve tried to offer helpful tips for creating viral content (as opposed to the more general concept of viral marketing), the goal here is not to actually go viral.

It would be amazing, but it probably won’t happen.

The goal here is to maximise shareability, and, in doing so, create content that serves your audience better.

The concepts presented by Jonah Berger that I’ve elaborated on are not ‘hacks’ or ‘cheat sheets’ to content success.  They’re best practices, extrapolated from Berger’s real-life research.

That said, if you follow the recommendations I’ve put forward here, you’ll end up with an amazing piece of content that your audience will definitely appreciate.

If you’re not sure how to implement my suggestions, or you don’t have time to write your own content, we do offer content creation services.  Alternatively, if you’re in an industry that requires specialised articles, we’re happy to edit them for you – you bring your knowledge to the table, and we help it become contagious.

Got any other suggestions about how to make content viral?  Let me know in the comments.

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By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.

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