What Makes Content Go Viral?

Adam Brown 2 years ago

Blog posts, infographics and articles are being produced and published at an astonishing rate, but most of it we will never see. Typically, the bits of content we do see is because they've gone 'viral'!

We know plenty of people who will put in a ton of effort researching and creating a piece of content, only to click the publish button and then leave it.

But how is your content ever going to take off when it’s just sitting there, lonely and abandoned? If you have a site that gets a lot of traffic, the chances are more people will come across it of course, but even then you should still be promoting it.

This post examines the psychology behind what makes content go viral as well as offering techniques you can use to make sure your lovingly created masterpiece is seen by as many eyeballs as possible.

Before we start, it is worth mentioning that content doesn’t magically go viral across the globe all by itself. And it’s not down to luck either. It’s a well-thought-out process that must be accompanied by paid activity to give the content a boost. There is still no guarantee millions of people will see your content, but, by following a few basic rules, you will give it the best chance.

Content creation

Before you create any piece of content, first determine your target audience. Zazzle MD Simon Penson spoke at Search Love in San Diego on how to create a well-targeted content strategy so have a look at his tips for inspiration. After you’ve decided what type of content you want to create, and the people you want to target, it’s time to decide what you are going to include in that killer piece.

Psychology of Sharing

The psychology behind why content goes viral is fascinating. When you look on your Facebook feed you will generally see posts about children, animals or just something downright disgusting – just Google trypophobia as an example. This didn’t happen because the person creating that content ‘got lucky’, it was because they knew what elements they needed to include to elicit an emotional reaction.

 Pareto Principle or 80:20 Rule

How many times have you seen this type of image? Don’t consider psychology in isolation – other factors, such as the 80:20 rule also apply. This is also known as the Pareto principle and can be applied in many ‘everyday’ situations. In 1906 Vilfredo Pareto discovered 20% of the Italian population had ownership of 80% of the land, and that this was proportional throughout different countries.

To apply Pareto’s principle to your content, try to follow the rule where 20% of time is spent on content creation and 80% on distribution/promotion. This may not always be feasible as some content types will take longer to produce than others, but, as a rule of thumb, it’s a good way to distribute time across your content tasks.

This 80:20 rule may also be of benefit when it is applied to your social media platforms, and Social Media Today examines this concept in more detail.

Emotional Engagement in Content

Emotional engagement is by far the biggest factor when it comes to the appeal of content. Chances are that you won’t have seen any viral posts that confuse you or make you feel contempt for the content. These will have stayed hidden deep within blogs and would never have gone viral.

If your content elicits a highly roused emotional state you have succeeded in the first step of creating your viral content. That may sound easy, but you need to get it spot on – to make someone feel joyful you must have a very good plan!

Jonah Berger is a thought leader in this area and he has published books and in-depth papers on this subject. Zazzle caught up with Jonah recently and he gave us some insight into the role of emotion in engagement and sharing:

“Emotion is a key driver of why people share (and purchase) things. As I talk about in Contagious: Why Things Catch On, the more we care about something, the more likely we’ll be to share it with others. And the deeper our emotional tie is with a brand or service, the more likely people will be to purchase.

“So think less about the function and more about the feelings. Why are people using a product or service in the first place, and how can you focus on that emotional core?

“Our research also shows that certain emotions are more powerful than others. You might think that people share positive things and avoid negative ones, but it’s more complex than that. It’s all about whether the emotions fire people up or generate physiological arousal. The more fired up we get, the more likely we are to share.”

Jonah has produced some resources around this that can be downloaded here: http://www.jonahberger.com/resources/

Which Emotions Count?

Nine of the most shareable emotions are as follows:

  • Joy
  • Inspiration
  • Laughter
  • Heart melting
  • Proud
  • Excited
  • Really upset
  • Happy
  • Amazed

Primal emotions have a lot less impact than those listed above, but they will help push a piece of content’s shareability. These emotions are often a lot easier to trigger due to them being natural and innate in human beings.

Primal emotions include:

  • Terror
  • Fury
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Sexual arousal

Social Triggers

Social triggers can be used along with emotion pull – also known as ‘social currency’. Take the example of someone who loves animals and is passionate about their welfare. A story comes along where something terrible has happened to animals – an example is the fire at Manchester Dogs’ Home. This upset a lot of people, but they also wanted to share the news with friends to spread the story and help the animals, which happened through both raising money and awareness. This story shows how emotions and social triggers work together to bolster social currency.

Examples of social triggers include:

  • Kudos for looking good
  • Kudos for looking cool
  • A shared interest or passion
  • Conversation starters
  • Opinion stating

 Negative Emotions

We have talked a lot about emotion in this post and how you should use it to enhance the shareability of your content, but there are three emotions you should steer clear of:

  • Confusion
  • Contempt
  • Disgust

These will make your content seem ‘average’ at best, but if you disgust someone so much that they don’t want to share it, you are doing something very wrong.

There is a fine line between making someone angry or upset and disgusting someone. In some cases, disgust can work if a shared passion is involved or there is a familiarity with the situation among the different parties.

Provoking a Good Emotional Response

Provoking an emotional response can be difficult. Getting it right involves a lot of thought and planning during the creative process. There are a number of factors you can consider to help get it right, including the following:

  • Telling a story
  • Music
  • Branding
  • Weather
  • Celebrities
  • Babies
  • Affinity with characters
  • Narration
  • Attractive people
  • Human emotion
  • Sickness
  • Dialogue
  • Animals
  • Familiarity
  • Product
  • Celebrities

You can produce content that targets an emotion perfectly, but if you aren’t the greatest of storytellers or very creative it may be better to write an informative piece instead – useful content can work well too!

One of the most common ways of doing this is by creating lists. These are easy to read and can turn a piece of content into a ‘go-to’ resource. We have created pieces of content like this on the Zazzle blog. Alex Jones’ article on how to breeze digital PR is a brilliant example.

People are often seeking solutions to their questions or problems, so providing the answers will make them happy. Guides, tips and ‘how tos’ can all be used to this effect. If you then include some of the emotional targets and social triggers discussed above, you should be on your way to creating the perfect piece of content.

Why do People Share Content?

It’s important to bear in mind why we want to share things; the premise is that a certain piece of content says something about the person who shares it. It makes them look good within their social platform.

One person who comes to mind when discussing the psychology surrounding the digital space is Nathalie Nahai. Zazzle caught up with Nathalie recently and she gave us her thoughts on the psychology behind viral content:

“Initially, people want their content to go viral, but sometimes it takes time. It takes time to build a name for yourself, it takes time to get people interested. The success will eventually arrive, but it’s really important to understand what you are trying to achieve.

“It’s spoken about a lot, but it comes down to why. Why it is you’re doing what you’re doing. Why should people watch? Why will it help someone’s life? Why will someone be motivated to share and enjoy it, or act on it? It’s not just the how and the what, it’s the why.

“Knowing whom you want to target and why is the main thing. Take Mini as an example – they know their user base tends to be a little bit quirky. They described an experience with their car as if the car had a personality and even gave it a name. They then created a campaign around this using the hashtag #mininotnormal.

“This campaign focused on using the customer as the ‘hero’ or protagonist of the video. The customer saw a billboard, was told to pull over at certain and place, and was given gifts. This campaign got people on board who weren’t Mini owners. This had a deeper underlying motivation and gave an identity to the car while providing good value to customers.

“Trust also plays a big part across the web; markers of credibility include logos from highly recognisable brands. Making your content look trustworthy is a big step in how sharable it will be. Put yourself in your potential reader or consumer’s shoes: why would he or she want to read your content or use/buy your product or service?

“There is an alternative angle to this though. Take a new area as an example – sometimes you need to have an idea of why YOU would want to create a piece of content. It’s not always about knowing what people want. Sometimes it’s about tapping into the underlying reasons why or what it is a person likes.

“If you have a strong enough idea and make your beliefs your core in terms of content, it will attract people who have similar values.”

Ways to Promote Content

We have looked at best practice and the rules around how you should approach content creation, so now let’s take a look at the main part: distribution/promotion. Going back to Pareto’s principle, this task should account for 80% of your time. This is easier than it sounds; social platforms are often one of the best ways to promote your content.

Social Platforms for Promotion

Social platforms are not just about talking to friends anymore, organisations and businesses use them to advertise their products and services. Facebook has gathered so much data on each of us that it makes it the perfect platform. Others may be just as good, it all depends on what you want to promote.


With Facebook you have the ability to create pages and interact with your customers or interested parties. It doesn’t stop there though; Facebook's advertising platform is one of the best. Who doesn't use Facebook these days?

The way you use Facebook’s advertising platform can vary. You can use its power editor and go very in-depth with retargeting and customising audiences, or you can simply boost a post with a couple of clicks. You can find out more about this in Matthew Barby’s post on social media strategy.


Twitter amplification can be really helpful in making a piece of content go viral. It is that little kick-start that will help your content be seen and, more importantly, shared by the right people.For a branded piece of content to go viral on Twitter it needs to be newsworthy and current.

If your content is strong and doesn’t disrupt people’s newsfeeds they will connect with it and any action taken from this is organic rather than paid, which increases the chances of it going viral.

The ‘pin-up’ example for this school of thought is the Oreo real-time ‘dunk in the dark’ campaign that followed the blackout at the Superbowl half-time show.

The newsworthy and quick-witted response of Oreo’s tweet really did give this piece of content every chance of going viral. This related to the familiarity people felt with the situation as so many watched the Superbowl.

Content Discovery Platforms

Content discovery platforms, such as Outbrain and Taboola, can be used to help content go viral. These are used in a similar way to social amplification by giving the little kick-start your content needs before it generates enough interest and shares to go viral.

The benefit of content discovery platforms is that the audience is already reading and consuming content, meaning that you won’t be disrupting their experience. This will help the audience connect more with your content and, if it is strong and current, the chances of social shares increase, which is the cornerstone of viral content.


Submitting your content to Reddit is a must. Without delving into the advertising platform, it offers an amazing way for getting content to go viral. First find the relevant ‘subreddits’ where you can see that the users in that group are interested in what you post. Don’t submit it randomly as it will be marked as spam and will not be worth your while.


This platform sometimes gets forgotten, which is a real shame. You can submit your content, but you can also use paid discovery in the same way as for Reddit and Facebook. Stumbleupon’s traffic is really cheap and its demographic is under-25s, who are looking for visually appealing content.

Traditional Media

Many people these days forget about traditional PR or just wouldn’t consider it in a digital space. Well they are missing out because it works and it works very well!

We do a lot of PR at Zazzle, targeting industry-specific sites through to classic news sites. Which sites you target depends on what industry you are in. It is always going to be hard to get PR placements with gambling and adult niche content, but the opportunity is still there.

Zazzle’s Head of Content, Julia Ogden, has written an article for Copy Blogger about creating captivating news stories that will appeal to media websites.


In this post we have discussed the various ways in which you can create content that will raise an emotional response from readers, along with those slants you should avoid if you want your content to go viral. However, the main point to remember is that content will not go viral by itself, you NEED to push it whatever platform you choose to promote it through.


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