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The Science of Viral Content: 6 Factors That Make Content Go Viral

By winniewong on May 4, 2015


What does it mean to go viral? Capture someone’s attention and they pass on your content. The next thing you know, everyone is already talking about it. This is virality. We all know how essential it is to have our content go viral, but the question on how to make it do so isn’t always readily answered. With a bit of insight into the psychology of the human mind, the science of viral content becomes clear.

Make it Sexy


We aren’t talking naked women and male strippers here, although they may have their place. What is important is creating a sense of appeal. Innuendo and double entendre work well in viral content. It is like a sense of getting away with a bit of naughtiness.

Put a couple in any situation and give them something to say or do that gets the imagination of the viewer to veer toward desire, feel attracted to one of the actors or in some other way feel an emotion that reminds them of sex, and you have their attention.

Take a look at this video with Jimmy Fallon and Dakota Johnson. They take completely dull sentences and make them sound sexy, simply by changing body language and tone of voice.

If you can make Jar Jar Binks sounds sexy, you can make anything sound sexy.

Make it Emotional


You want your viewers to feel. Any content that creates a strong emotion is going to cause a reaction of wanting to share. The trick is to create the right balance of the most preferred emotion.

Things like anger, disgust, fear and sadness all have their place in viral content. If you want to maximize the spread however, it has been found that surprise, amazement, curiosity and uncertainty all top the list of viral content. Anything that creates laughter is a plus. People want to feel good and love sharing content that makes them laugh.

Appealing to a person’s sense of caring is often used but it needs to be balanced with positive emotion to make it work in regards to virality. Think of the animal abuse commercials that play sad music and talk only about how sad and abused the animals are. Many people turn those off. The videos that show an abused animal being rehabilitated and ending up happy and loved get viral sharing over and over again.

Everyone has seen at least one example of the ice bucket challenge at this point. This one particular ALS ice bucket challenge video illustrates how to use a range of emotions to get the message across. It starts out as funny (and mildly disturbing!), but quickly grabs the emotions of the viewers as the subject reveals his own diagnosis. This not only captures a variety of emotions, it also makes the subject more personal for the audience. It makes them care.

Viewer discretion is advised.

People want a happy ending. Capture them with a negative emotion but give them hope and a positive emotion that makes them feel there is hope. Let them feel the amazement of a bad, seemingly hopeless situation ending up positive.

Another emotional appeal is to create a message that is either a form of public good or creates a positive self-image. You can leave your brand almost entirely out of a piece like this, maybe showing it at the end. People will remember the emotion created and tie it to your brand.

Gender also plays part in the emotional factor. Women are complex humans emotionally. They can handle content that goes through several emotions in a short period, such as laughter to seriousness and onto a sense of wonder. Trust is the most important emotion to appeal to in women. On the other hand, men are more emotionally simple. You want to keep the content focused on one basic emotion, preferably an enjoyable one. Humor works well with men.

Make it Simple


People on the internet often check in when they only have a few minutes. Their attention spans are short and they aren’t looking for long, complicated content. They want simple and simple is absolutely necessary to go viral. Make your content scannable. Use simple words and short sentences. We aren’t saying to talk down to readers, but don’t make them have to think too hard.

Another part of keeping it simple is to know how people “read” a web page. Very few people start out reading the whole thing. They scan the first two paragraphs and then, if they have become intrigued, will scan down the left side to read sub-headings. By including bullet points, bold headings and lists, you are more likely to get more of the content read and passed on. Make it possible to get your point across even if all the words are not read.

Take a look at this research that explains how heat maps were used on various content to see where and how readers engaged in the content. They discovered an “F”-based pattern that stayed consistent across content matter. By keeping that in mind, you will be able to place the most important material where it will be most likely read.

Make sure your first two paragraphs have the most important information. If that information isn’t there, the reader won’t be likely to ever see it. After that, use action words that convey emotion to start your bullet points, sub-headings and lists. Bold these words to capture attention.

Make it Valuable


People love sharing things they find helpful. By creating content that is valuable and offers information or solutions, you increase your chances of it going viral. Describe a new way of doing some mundane task. Show how to simplify a complicated thing. Present a new use for something that is different and fun or useful. All of these things make people want to share their new knowledge.

Helping people understand a complicated subject by breaking it down into short, easy to digest points will give them an ah-ha moment. This translates into them wanting to share. Viral content often has people thinking such things as “I never thought of it that way before!” If you can make your readers feel smarter, you are on your way.

Make it Relatable


Who are you trying to reach? In order to create viral content buzz, you need to know your audience. Not only do men and women find different content appealing, but different ages or interest groups react to varying content. Before you create anything, sit down and make a profile of your ideal subject. The content will reach others, but it is this audience you must address.

This wonderful article explains how different emotions appeal to different genders.

This is true for economic level, age category and even different areas of the country. Consider who you need to reach and what emotions are most likely to grab them by the seat of the pants and cause them to act.

Find out what your ideal target is interested in at the moment. What music are they listening to or movies are the talk of conversation? Determine if they are likely to be attending a sporting event, a church service or a singles night at the local club. Try to make the content locally appealing if possible. When a person is familiar with a place mentioned, they feel pride and want to share.

Another thing that knowing your audience helps with is making it possible to avoid subjects that will have them avoiding content. For example, if your target audience is funeral directors, discussing death with a touch of humor or mentioning food for a casket convention isn’t going to cause an issue. For the general public, however, the thought of either in relation to death is going to have people thinking you are rude. Know what subjects are taboo for your audience and avoid these at all costs.

Make it Work


Timing is important. In this regard, timing is related to when you post. Certain forums have different days and times when the audience is most likely to share or otherwise interact with your content. Do some homework and try posting things on different days and at different times. Take note of the interaction and sharing that takes place. Before long, you will start to see a pattern that is fairly consistent. This does not mean that content posted at another time won’t eventually go viral, but posting at the perfect time can make this more likely to happen.

Study existing viral content. Explore the content, emotions created, time posted and target audience. What made this go viral? When you discover the how and why behind the viral content, duplicate it. Take the advice of those who have mastered the art of virality. Tactics that have proven to work are one of your best tools.

Don’t spend a lot of time thinking about your content. Yes, you want it to be relevant and create emotion and eventually go viral. If you take too much time over-thinking, however, you will end up either missing the perfect timing or questioning your content to the point of actually destroying some of what most makes it work. Go with your instincts. You know what you want to share with others, so you already know more than you realize.

[This blog post was originally written and published by Azfar Hisham on April 29, 2015. It is most recently updated by Winnie Wong on Jun 02, 2020]

Updated: 21 March 2023


About Winnie

Winnie is an aspiring copywriter & internet marketer in the vast world of digital marketing. She's as curious as she can be; constantly hunting for answers to her questions, never saying no to new experiences. When she's not spending her time typing up a storm, she is at home keeping up with her never-ending movie marathon & books.

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