The 6 Keys to Viral Content


We all know about the United passenger dragged battered and bleeding from a flight back in April. That event went viral immediately. Emotion, anger and empathy made it a story that infuriated the world.

But many less shocking events like cat videos, chocolate rain, and double rainbows go viral as well. Why? What gets people sharing on social media? 

In his book, Contagious, Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger describes the 6 keys to viral content.

Berger is a 32-year-old whizkid/professor of marketing at The Wharton School. His research shows that to get people talking, your story, product or service needs one or more of the 6 keys to viral content:

1. Personal recommendation 

People like revealing secrets, sharing remarkable facts or stories. They share info that makes them look good. If your product, service, performance, reaction, or event or event has ‘inner remarkability’– something novel or surprising about it, like JetBlue, a low cost airline that gives you luxurious seats and free snacks, then you’re going against expectations and rampant sharing may result.

2. Triggers 

Think Context. Think triggers. French music puts you in the mood for French wine, not German wine. Red makes people think of Coke, not Pepsi.Those are triggers. Lately, airlines trigger complaints, even outrage, not comfort or glamour.  Triggers lead to increased awareness and contribute to something going viral.

3. Emotion 

Emotion inspires sharing, like Susan Boyle’s performance on American Idol. If you shared that video with a friend, she/he is likely to feel the same way you did, and that strengthened your friendship.

People like sharing positive stories and articles rather than negative. Sadness does not go viral. But anger or even anxiety can, like Dr. Dao being dragged off the United flight. Many nonprofits base their fundraising appeals on your anxiety. The key is psychological arousal. High arousal emotions are:

  • Awe
  • Excitement
  • Amusement
  • Anger
  • Anxiety

Contentment and sadness lead to low arousal. People want to be moved, or entertained. Activate emotion and people will share.

4. Public visibility and imitation

Others’ choices provide instant information. But we need to see what others are doing to follow, echo or simulate. Berger says,

“…a key factor in driving products to catch on is public visibility. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.”

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate, says Berger. People choose restaurants full of customers. It’s called “social proof.” If your friends read the new John Grisham thriller, you may too. Baristas seed the tip jar with fives and ones when they start their shift. Observability spurs action.

5. Practical information 

Useful information is another type of content that can go viral. Practical value is about the receiver, but the sender also feels good; sharing is caring. It’s like giving advice. Which medical insurance is cheapest? Does a zinc lozenge really cure a cold?

There’s also the psychology of a deal, which led to the business models for Groupon and Living Social. People talk about an amazing deal and like to pass it on. by the way, the size of the discount matters.

  • If the product’s price is less than $100, percentage discounts seem larger
  • If the product’s price is more than $100, numerical discounts seem larger
  • Ten percent off a $2000 laptop should be promoted as $200 off, not 10 percent.

Cut through the clutter. Make it clear why your product or idea is so useful.

6. Stories!

“People don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride,” Jonah Berger

  • Ever notice how friends who are good storytellers earn all the attention?
  • In Toastmasters, they teach you to start out with a story
  • Fairy tales, urban legends, Shakespeare plays– stories are vessels that carry valuable lessons with them. Dr. Dao and his broken nose was a story too shocking and emotional to ignore.

But remember, your story has to be related to you, your company or organization. Embed your desired information in the plot so the story cannot be told without it.

Based on Jonah Berger’s six keys to viral content, there are many ways to go viral. Any one of his six keys can make it happen. You don’t need all six. Nor do you need to be dragged off an airline kicking and bleeding to go viral. 

I read in last week’s NYT that United Airlines reported strong second quarter profits despite the viral horror story in April. Airlines have consolidated and I guess when you need to travel, you buy the cheapest seat possible, even on United. That’s reality.

But the stigma of a viral customer service story lingers. When anything goes viral, it lasts. That’s reality too.

Has anything you’ve posted gone viral? 


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