The Science of “Going Viral”: 5 Psychological Hacks that Drive Shareable Content

Often, we think of “going viral” like catching lightning in a bottle — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event that can’t be replicated…But that’s not quite true. #MichaelsWilder #contentmarketing Click To Tweet

Often, we think of “going viral” like catching lightning in a bottle — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event that can’t be replicated

But that’s not quite true.

There are people who can consistently produce viral content, replicating the same steps over and over to get the results they want. The truth is, there is a recipe for virality. It’s not a spin of the roulette wheel. It’s a collection of intentional decisions based on human psychology.

5 Characteristics of Viral Content

1. Provides Social Currency

Who didn’t fantasize about sitting at the “cool kids’ table” in high school? Everyone wants to be popular — to rise to the top of the social hierarchy. Certain viral content promises to make that dream come true.

This is probably the most important characteristic of viral content because most other points I’ll make rely on creating positive social currency. Subconsciously, we all evaluate a piece of content prior to sharing it. How will sharing this piece of content make me look? Does it make me look smarter? Hipper? More adventurous? Our social feeds are a reflection of us, well, the us we want others to see—a better version of us.

2. Evokes an Emotional Response

https://miro.medium.com/max/500/0*EoANs743jgT54pHT.jpg

Anyone remember #TheDress? (Blue and black, by the way, you won’t convince me otherwise.) What about Laurel vs. Yanny? These two examples rely on the element of remarkablity. It has that special quality that makes people say, “wow!” and want to hit “share.” It also relies on a degree of sociability. You need at least two people to compare if what you saw/heard matches with what someone else sees/hears.

A study from Psychology Today found that content that evokes an emotional response—regardless of the type of emotion—is far more likely to spread. This psychological process is know as “emotional contagion,” owing to the fact that emotional content spreads like a contagious disease.

Obviously, the type of emotion you try to evoke will depend on how you want people to act. Are you trying to raise awareness for a cause? Anger or disgust is a good motivator. Or maybe you want people to listen to your new podcast, so you rely on humor to delight your audience and give them a taste of what they can expect.

3. Is Easily Digestible

“5 Hacks to Instantly Make You a Better Cook/Writer/Circus Elephant Handler…#4 Will Surprise You!”

We’ve all see these listicle-type articles and videos pop up on our social feeds. They’re appropriately referred to as “click-bait.” That’s because the headline helps to draw you in and makes you want to click. Infographics, catchy headlines, bullet points, numbered lists, sub-headings—all these little tricks help to keep readers’ attention and make the information easier to read. With all the competition for users’ attention on the internet, boredom or confusion is a death sentence for a piece of content.

4. Promises a Better Life

I’ve touched upon this characteristic in #3, but it bares repeating. Viral content promises value in exchange for the reader/viewer’s attention.

A video called “Get Clever with Your Clutter…7 Organization Hacks!” had 15.6 million Facebook interactions in 2016, and “8 Ways to Transform and Update Your Wardrobe” had 8.6 million. You’ll notice that the listicle format makes a reappearance, but it goes further than that. It promises a high value return for very little effort. In <5 minutes of watching/skimming, your life can be dramatically improved! It’s a powerful message and one that taps into our shared psychological desire for instant gratification.

5. Is Exclusive

https://miro.medium.com/max/500/0*JeduM-tWvva7z95a

This quiz was one of the most shared pieces of content on Facebook in 2017. Why? Because it promises membership into a prestigious group. Only 2% of people are smart enough to ace this test! Are you one of them?

Of course, we all want to be part of that exclusive club. It’s another way we can show that we’ve risen in the social hierarchy. Creating content that lets people brag to their friends is almost a guarantee that it will get shared.


Have you had success using these psychological hacks to “go viral?” Do you have any tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments!

Mike Speer Administrator
Chief Marketing Officer Michaels WIlder

Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer.

Chief Marketing Officer at Michaels Wilder and an entrepreneur since before the average person knew what that even meant, Mike has helped countless businesses build effective sales and marketing strategies. His philosophy is, “If you’re not thinking 10 years ahead, you’re already behind.” Mike’s content has appeared in Forbes Magazine, Inc. and Apple News. He has also been featured numerous times as a “Top 10 Writer” worldwide on the Q&A content site, Quora.

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Mike Speer Administrator
Chief Marketing Officer Michaels WIlder

Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer.

Chief Marketing Officer at Michaels Wilder and an entrepreneur since before the average person knew what that even meant, Mike has helped countless businesses build effective sales and marketing strategies. His philosophy is, “If you’re not thinking 10 years ahead, you’re already behind.” Mike’s content has appeared in Forbes Magazine, Inc. and Apple News. He has also been featured numerous times as a “Top 10 Writer” worldwide on the Q&A content site, Quora.

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