Elf Yourself Office Max Campaign
Courtesy of Korye Logan

Getting content to go viral requires more than dumb luck.

Marketers who consistently create content that goes viral all follow a strategic creation, production and promotion process.

In this blog post, we assemble and synthesize articles on best practices to create, place and promote viral content.

We also group the most popular types of viral content into six categories: guerilla tactics, growth hacking, movie promotions, viral series, interactive content, viral articles and viral videos. 

How to Create Viral Content

In 2009, marketing professor Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania released a study titled What Makes Online Content Viral? The study was the first to look at the “science” behind viral marketing and the qualities of content that has gone viral. The study remains a key reference today.

Berger’s STEPPS system examines the common elements in content that goes viral:

Social Currency

People enjoy sharing content that compliments them. Sometimes, this means sharing content that perceives them as “in the know,” or content that showcases good taste or an opinion.


Subtle reminders about an idea or product increase sharing. Popular content has common triggers that allow it to stay at the top of people’s minds. This explains why Rebecca Black’s music video “Friday” has over 64 million plays on YouTube: people share the video with their friends on Fridays to get excited for the weekend.


People tend to share content that evokes strong emotional reactions. High-energy emotions including joy, anger, surprise, disgust and fear are most likely to generate shares..


When people see others sharing content, they are more likely to do the same.

Practical Value

Practical, useful material is highly viral.


Stories make it easier for people to become engaged. The key: make viewers/readers eager for what happens next in the tale.

In 10 Secrets to Creating Content that Can Go Viral Crazily, Steve Nguyen offers a 10-step process to create high-impact content.  Here are the key tips from the guide:  (see SlideShare below for the full presentation).

Use multimedia wherever possible. As Nguyen puts it, if your article contains only text, “you lose the game.” Consider images, videos, slides, infographics, or a combination of all.

Become a “purple cow.” The key to getting content to stand out: be the first to present something, or present it in a radically different way than anyone has done before.

Craft an attractive headline. The top three most effective headlines contain “Top tips,” “How to” and “10 ways to…” in some format.

Choose a conclusion. Open endings often instigate more comments and shares than conclusions that wrap things up nicely.

Express your personal voice.  You writing style, insights and opinions make  your content unique. Plus, people want to hear from other people, not brands. Nguyen encourages content marketers to add their personal touch or experience to stories.

How to Share Viral Content

Mathematically, viral content is defined by:

Impressions X Conversion rate X Shares per viewer

Or, the average number of people exposed to content per share, times the percent of people who see and click, times the percent of people who see, click and share.

“Viral” posts rarely match this equation, but understanding the formula can help marketers figure out how to promote their content, as explained in Thoughts on ‘The Emotional Drivers of Highly Successful Viral Content.’ The insights are based on a Moz webinar from January.

Impressions. The larger the initial number of impressions, the more likely conversion rate and shares per viewer will increase. If bloggers want their content to go viral, they should post it on popular and niche blogs and mainstream outlets.

Conversion Rate. Headlines are the single biggest factor for improving conversion rate. They should point out a knowledge gap and invoke emotion, without giving away the punch line or overhyping it. Bloggers should run headlines through an A/B test to determine which is the more popular among audiences. The second biggest factor: the thumbnail.

Shares per viewer. A look at the types of sharers, how and where they share content:

  • Altruists – People who want to see content succeed, often because they believe in the message, author or subject. They share content mostly through Facebook and email.
  • Careerists – The “business sharers” that think sharing content will help their careers. They are active mostly on LinkedIn.
  • Hipsters – Users who are more concerned with how they are seen for sharing the content than the actual content itself.  Shared through Facebook and Twitter.
  • Boomerangs – People who share to get a reaction or feel validated. Shared through Facebook and Twitter.
  • Connectors – The creative, relaxed sharers who curate helpful, useful and practical content. Shared through Facebook, email and Pinterest.

How to Curate Viral Content

Dan Lyons of HubSpot sits down with former Gawker blogger and content curator Neetzan Zimmerman in How to Make Viral Content: 9 Tips from the Greatest Viral Content Genius on the Planet.

Zimmerman’s record of viral success validates his process for identifying content: of the 10 most viewed stories on Gawker in 2013, nine were his. He keeps a database of about 1,000 websites that he searches and updates every day and scans roughly 500 posts per morning to find content that will go viral on Gawker’s blog.

Zimmerman’s 9 secrets to curating successful content:

1. Put in the hours. Zimmerman works 12 hours per day and works from home so he can always stay connected.

2. Cast a wide net. Find and monitor off-the-grid websites that post content your audience is unlikely to have read or seen.

3. Aspire to inspire. The bread and butter of viral content: inspirational stories and articles that evoke very primal emotions, says Zimmerman.

4. Post often. Not everything will go viral. The more content you share, the more likely at least one post will hit it big.

5. Think about timing. The two “golden” time slots where posts perform best: 9 a.m. and noon, EST, says Zimmerman. At 9 a.m., workers on the East Coast are arriving at their office and don’t want to start work right away. At noon, the same thing happens with West Coast workers, plus East Coasters are breaking for lunch. Zimmerman’s tip: avoid 4 to 6 p.m. EST (rush hour).

6. Learn from the flops. When a post doesn’t go viral, study the headline, the time it was posted and other data to determine why people didn’t like it.

7. Package it well. It’s not enough to just find great stories. Marketers have to leverage their creativity and current audience to write a headline, find an angle and promote content.

8. Be social. Gawker promoted posts on Facebook and Twitter accounts. Zimmerman, however, never self-promotes from his personal account. Reddit’s front page is the best way to inject a post with a burst of traffic, he says.

9. Be patient. Content on the Internet is immortal: if it doesn’t take off right away, there’s still a chance it will go viral next week, in several months, or even a year.

Types of Viral Content

When you think of viral content, several popular videos and stories usually come to mind. Viral content shares a common theme, which Gregory Ciotti points out in A Scientific Take on Viral Marketing (with 7 Classic Examples).

The seven most popular types of viral content, with examples, are:

Guerilla Tactics

There’s a reason these PR campaigns were among the most successful in 2013: most of them executed “guerilla” marketing, using unconventional techniques to deliver mass exposure.

Check out this video created by Qualcomm in which they performed various stunts for people waiting at a bus stop:

Growth Hacking

Through “growth hacking,” companies can gain exposure for their brand and drive sales. The key: help the product market itself.

Diamond Candles, for example, is based around a unique selling proposition: every candle includes a ring inside. The brand took it one step further by adding an incentive: some candles have rings worth $100, $1,000 and even $5,000 inside of them.

Diamond Candles
Courtesy of Diamond Candles
Movie Promotions

Marketers for movies sometimes create wildly entertaining campaigns to promote upcoming feature films. One recent example: the telekinetic coffee shop, in which actors pretended a woman had telekinetic powers in a New York coffee shop to promote the movie “Carrie.”

Viral Series

One way to assure content’s popularity is to end it on an open note and tell people to tune in for the next one. Viral series can work for even the most “boring” products, as Ciotti exemplifies with Blendtec’s web series called “Will It Blend?”

In the series, the host puts random objects into Blendtec blenders — including iPhones, video games and movies — and asks audiences, “Will it blend?”
Interactive Content

When people can interact with content or change the outcome of something, it makes the experience more engaging and memorable. One example of a campaign that sees lots of activity every year: Office Max’s “Elf Yourself.”

Courtesy of Korye Logan

Users can upload face photos of themselves, friends and family members into the app, and watch themselves be turned into elves that dance across the screen.

Viral Articles

Though videos make up most viral content, bloggers also have a chance for their written content to go viral.

The key: keep it simple. Controversial topics decrease the likelihood users will comment on it; often, people don’t want to put much effort into their comments or write something they think will spark debate.

Viral Videos

Viral videos are the “de facto” examples of viral marketing. They sometimes take the form of creative marketing campaigns, but also include funny videos, eye-catching visuals, inspirational moments, and dangerous stunts.

YouTube is littered with examples of viral videos, but this one by GoPro deserves the spotlight for its display of a heartwarming tale while selling a product. In the video, a GoPro camera follows firemen through a recently burned house and shows a firefighter rescuing a kitten.


The baseline quality for content to go viral: it must conjure powerful emotions from readers or viewers. Bloggers can create viral content to get recognition for themselves, or find and curate viral content to get recognition for their blogs. By studying examples of content that went viral, marketers can get a better idea of the type of content that will soar with their own audience.

This article originally appeared in the CyberAlert Blog and can be viewed here.