The Not-So-Special Story Behind How To Go Viral – Why These Brands Did It Right

Surviving in the world of online content is no easy feat.

Thriving in this world is a Herculean task, and each success has the rest of us wondering how and why.

It seems impossible, yet it happens.

When it comes to going viral, the Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 Rule) is an extremely helpful reference point. It states that:

  • 80% of output is produced by 20% of input
  • 80% of outcomes are from 20% of causes
  • 80% of contribution comes from 20% of the potential contribution available

In other words, if 20% of your time is spent on content creation, 80% should be spent on content distribution/promotion. This may not always be feasible as some content types will always take longer to produce than others, but as a general rule of thumb, it’s a good way to distribute time across your content tasks.

The reason why? Because often 1% of your content gets 99% of the attention. Viral content defies all odds. It’s an Oscar winner; a slam dunk; a home run.

This post will examine the psychology behind what makes content go viral as well as offering actionable tips to help you achieve the holy grail.

Why do we share?

To unravel why content goes viral, we need to understand why content gets shared in the first place.

So what is it that makes us click ‘share’ instead of ‘like’?

A New York Times study narrowed down the motivations for sharing content into five basic categories:

It’s interesting, but not very actionable. Let’s dig deeper!

What makes content go viral?

When looking for the philosopher’s stone of ‘virality’, you will notice that every study and research conducted about this topic agrees upon four main influencing factors:

  • Emotional appeal
  • Value/usefulness
  • Originality
  • Outreach

One of the best-known studies is that of Milkman and Berger who explored what exactly makes content spread like wildfire and whether virality can be achieved deliberately.

They found that content that entices high-arousal emotions (either positive or negative) is more effective than content that doesn’t evoke emotions. This finding reflects the common motives for sharing such as the need to connect, feel involved and support causes that matter to us.

They also found that positive content is generally more successful than negative content. That’s a bit surprising, right? I personally would have thought negative content would rule the scene given the much-sought ‘scandal’ factor of negative news. But then again, when you think about it, the act of ‘sharing’ is intrinsically linked to our personal image, therefore, we want to appear to provide positive value to others.

Tip #1 – Activating high-arousal emotions

So, the first tip when it comes to going viral is to activate high-arousal emotions.

High-arousal emotions can be positive or negative, and they include awe, fear, joy, anger, anxiety, desire, and surprise.

Let’s go through each of these emotions one by one.


Awe is the wonder and bewilderment we feel when we experience something remarkable. Something we simply cannot resist commenting on or sending forward. It often arises after we experience something we deeply or strongly relate to, or when we read breaking tips or research.

A great example is one of the most viral articles of 2015, ‘To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This‘, by Mandy Len Catron. The author described her experience of finding an old laboratory experiment that claimed to make complete strangers fall in love, and tested it. Turns out it did, in fact, make her fall in love. Boom! One thing everyone in the world is interested in is love and the article went viral.

It stirred up discussion all over the world and inspired people to either prove or disprove the experiment. This article was an ‘awe bomb’, although it worked on several other emotional fronts including surprise, joy and even anxiety.


If you poke people with the angry stick, they will work very, very hard to get justice. They will tweet about it, write articles in outrage or rebuttal, and attack you on all virtual fronts to convince the rest of the world that you are wrong.

A great example is an article by ‘The “Content Is King” Myth Debunked’ by Derek Halpern. The old saying that content is king of SEO is widely accepted in today’s world. Derek took this truism and exploded it with data-supported findings. A lot of people tried to discredit his article which resulted in huge amount of backlinks – so the haters actually made him more successful.

Be careful, though, with enticing anger. Using it to your advantage does not mean being deliberately antagonistic or controversial. It means taking a highly debatable topic and finding a logical, well-referenced and original stance on it. It means challenging the accepted status quo using rational, coherent arguments. Also, it’s never advised to base your entire content marketing strategy on this particular emotion.


What surprises us? Well, anything that goes against our expectations, really. Enticing the emotion of surprise is all about challenging the accepted status quo. ‘Surprise’ articles are often science-based, revolving around new research findings or simply challenging existing beliefs.

The article ‘Drinking three glasses of champagne ‘could help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease‘ grabbed worldwide attention because not only does it introduce surprising new information, but it justifies a common little ‘vice’ which is the consumption of alcohol for relaxation and socialization.


The list of what brings joy into our lives and our hearts is long and includes anything that is funny, inspiring or uplifting. This type of content is usually all about personal stories, random acts of kindness, social studies with positive outcomes, and all things cute in life (yes, including cat videos).

For example, the article ‘Penguin swims 5,000 miles every year for reunion with the man who saved his life’ is a cute, heart-warming story that highlights a special relationship between an old man and one of the cutest animals in the world.


Fear is a good one. It’s one of the strongest motivators known to mankind. Even the most rational human beings are bound to succumb to the panic of the surviving reptilian brain and act based on fear from time to time.

Good topic approaches include making people afraid they might be unconsciously committing errors or targeting the ever-present fear of missing out on something (commonly known as ‘FOMO‘).

You can find inspiration for how to entice fear in the article ‘How Images Improve – or Destroy – Conversion Rates‘. This piece emphasizes the importance of images in online content and instills in the reader a momentary fear that there is something they are doing wrong. This fear, in turn, forces you to click… and we all know enough clicks is what makes a piece go viral.

Tip #2 – Making something useful

The next item on the list of viral ‘musts’ is usefulness. It’s simple: content must provide value in one form or another. Content that is useful on a practical level is much more likely to go viral.

Common examples of these type of posts are ‘how to’ guides and informative lists that provide tips and tricks. The only problem with useful content is that there are literally thousands upon thousands of lists and tutorials online already. So, getting yours well-shared is not only about being useful, but also about being more useful than the content that is already out there.

Brian Dean, an SEO specialist and marketer, advises creating a ‘skyscraper post’. The secret lies in finding share-worthy content, creating something ten times better than that, and then reaching out to the right people for promotion.

Another useful tip is, if you are writing an article with positive but vague ideas, wrap up your article with a list of concrete steps that you want your readers to take. Concrete actions lead to results – and results help you be remembered and referred back to.

Tip #3 – Original: to be or not to be?

Regarding viral content, being ‘original’ may or may not be good advice. In fact, the most successful creators of viral content spend heaps of time studying other viral results and mimicking them in their own content. So where does that leave originality?

A good example of originality repurposed is a post from BuzzFeed that used the romanticized inconsistencies in the famous Penguin stories to create their version of the well-received post: ‘A Scientist Says That Story About The Penguin Who Swims Home To His Friend Was Misreported‘.

It’s hard to believe, but when you think about it, it’s true. Originality does not reside as much in the originality of the idea or information, but in the approach and representation. You don’t always have to go elsewhere to look for trends to evaluate, just improve and reuse your own content.

Tip #4 – Reach for outreach

The last (but not least) law of the jungle when it comes to going viral is: no exposure = no likes. Simply creating content, posting it and hoping for the best will not cut it these days. There is too much fluff online already. By the time Google crawlers reach you, you will be retired in the Bahamas. If you want your content to get noticed today, you need to dive deep into social media and reach out to the right people.

Mandy Lee Catron’s love experiment would never have become world-famous if she had stuck to her little blog with its decent but small reader-base. Instead, by guest-posting the article to The New York Times, she got the necessary exposure for her content to become viral.

So, whether you decide to guest post or promote your content piece above and below social media, exposure cannot be overlooked as a necessary step in the process.

Summing up

Making your content viral is not an easy task, but it is not impossible either. With attention, evaluation and practice, your article or video can be the next storm that rushes through news feeds and Twitter streams all over the world.