August 10, 2018 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
What makes content go viral? That’s the question Jonah Berger, a Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School, asked himself. His research led him to a complex answer, which he distilled into six invaluable principles that make viral content. Here is how you can use his principles to make your content go viral.
You can have content performing the function of higher value, bringing more of what people want to the right audience. Social currency is the reason people use the “share” button on Facebook — they want to be the person who provides content that is highly valued, something other people will cherish them for.
To have content use the principle of social currency, we need to find its inner remarkability.
Did you know that a ball of glass will bounce higher than a ball of rubber or that kangaroos can’t walk backward? These are all extraordinary, remarkable facts about the ordinary, unremarkable things and matters. But you want to share them because now you have the social currency of knowledge — which is both fun and informative.
Whenever I’m out camping with my friends, I always remember the fact that I don’t know how to light a fire. And every single time, I tell myself that I will come back home and google “How to light a fire” — but I never do it. The reason is that there are no external or internal triggers happening to me when I get home that would remind me to follow through.
Most triggers are unconscious, and people don’t even have to like them to work. Here is an example of two slogans to prove that:
The students declared the second slogan corny and half as attractive as the first one. They also said that the second slogan couldn’t make them eat more vegetables.
In reality, the second slogan got students to eat 25 percent more vegetables and fruits.
The reason? The second slogan had the word “tray,” which served as a trigger for the students. Even though they didn’t like that slogan as much, it helped them remember to make healthier choices at the right place at the right time.
Image via Flickr by screaming_monkey
When we care, we share. Even birds on trees already know that people respond to emotions — but to which emotions, exactly? One emotion in particular frequently involves a sense of surprise, unexpectedness, and mystery.
Imagine standing on the edge of Grand Canyon. The red gorge stretches as far as your eyes can see. The canyon floor drops almost vertically below your feet. You get dizzy from this, so you take two steps back from the edge. There is an uneasy silence around you; the only thing you hear is the hawk’s wings flapping through the dry air, circling around the barren rocks and non-existent vegetation. It’s so barren that it looks like you could be on the moon. But you are amazed and humbled. You feel elevated.
This is the emotion that has the biggest effect on people: awe.
If your content is built to show, it’s built to grow. By “public,” we mean that your content needs to have social proof, something that says other people think it’s valuable. It’s been said that when people are free to do as they please, they will usually imitate one another. It’s like the old saying, “Monkey see, monkey do.” We copy the behaviors of other people, and the more people do something, the more we think that they are right and that the matter at hand is important.
So how do you use social proof for your content to generate virality? Display a share count on your articles — but not in the old way of “this is the number of shares.” Remember, we think in relative, not in absolute terms. Instead of using a share counter with absolute numbers, put one with relative terms. Did you know that only 9 percent of all content online gets more than 100 shares and that only 1 percent of all content gets more than 1000 shares. If you have an article that gets more than 1000 shares, it belongs to that 1 percent of all shared articles on the internet.
A journalist asked famous writer and editor William F. Buckley Jr. if he had an option to take a single book with him on a deserted island, which one would he take? Buckley simply said “the book about shipbuilding.”
Useful things are important, and not only do we value them, but we also share them. That’s why articles with topics such as “23 amazing things you can use your hoodie for” tend to go viral — we want practical information.
The two things to consider about virality of practical value are information packaging and audience. Information packing is all about getting the right format for the information you want to present. For instance, you may be willing to read this one-thousand-word article, but probably not hundreds of pages of research about virality.
Audience is about matching the right information with the people who need it the most. The list of the five best Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago would be great for a friend who is living there, but not for someone living in Denver.
We don’t think in terms of information — we think in terms of narrative. When someone tells us a story, we enjoy it and simply listen to the story. However, the information that goes along with it also sticks around in our minds. We remember the story and therefore the information that was packed into the story. If you can create a compelling story and insert valuable information inside of it, you’ve got yourself a winner. Some stories even last for thousands of years. You probably know the story about The Trojan Horse, for instance.
No matter what your content wants to prove, it’s always better to package it with a story. A story will make the audience think in a narrative way, and they will form an emotional connection with the characters inside of your content. All of that will make the content more likely to go viral.
These six principles will help your content go viral. They are quite simple but not easy to insert into the content, so it will take some time to adjust. By mastering these principles, you will definitely create content worth sharing.
More from the author: