The Smart Entrepreneur’s Guide to Crafting Viral Content

How viral content becomes contagious, according to Jonah Berger.

“How do I get my marketplace startup to go viral? How do I get 100 million views and shares?” Every content creator or startup founder has asked questions along those lines at some point. Going viral is the holy grail for every marketer and entrepreneur, but even clever or high-budget marketing campaigns and products fail to get noticed sometimes. So what exactly gets people sharing?

To understand how things catch on, we have to understand the psychology of social sharing. A study conducted by The New York Times Customer Insight Group found that sharing is about connecting with others and maintaining relationships. Some are motivated by the opportunity to enrich others, to inform as a way to show they care, to communicate an image of themselves, and to connect with others who share the same interests.

Photo credit: New York Times.

Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, spent years researching why things go viral. Berger studied why some New York Times articles make the paper’s own Most E-mailed List, why products get word of mouth, and how social influence shapes everything from the cars we buy to the clothes we wear to the names we give our children. From his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, here’s his secret to creating the perfect viral campaign:

1. Social currency. One of the factors of contagiousness is “social currency”, which basically posits that people share things that make them look good.

2. Triggers. A strong trigger (mental association) will help to remind your audience of your product or brand. This is the exact reason why Rebecca Black’s viral hit “Friday” gets the most views on Fridays.

3. Emotional. Strong emotions like awe, anger, or happiness get people to share. However, sadness is one to stay away from.

4. Public. Our decisions are affected by what everyone else is doing. If everyone else is sharing it, the more likely you’ll share too. This makes public image important, so make sure your brand or product is highly visible for everyone to see.

Apple’s logo is everywhere for the public to see. Photo credit: Macworld.

5. Practical value. People share content with their friends and family because it’s helpful and makes their lives better.

6. Stories. Create content that features your brand or product as an integral part of the story. The majority of people don’t share specs or technical details — they share stories. See how Blendtec does it: https://youtu.be/lBUJcD6Ws6s

Next, let’s consider the ways to craft content that sticks in people’s minds. Have you ever thought about why some things stick in your memory and some things don’t?

Photo credit: Jonah Berger, Wharton Online.

1. Simple is about streamlining your message and making it understandable for your audience. It also has the added benefit of leaving people wanting more. Because most people’s memories can only focus on a few things at once, deliver only the core message. Analogies also help to simplify the message.

2. Unexpected. Break patterns and think out of the box, but remember that your goal is to hold attention, not just get it. It doesn’t have to be something crazy — DoubleTree by Hilton welcomes guests by greeting them with a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, which is unusual for a mid-priced business hotel. Something as simple as that can make for a memorable experience.

The cookie doubles up as an analogy for DoubleTree’s thoughtfulness and dedication to its guests. Photo credit: DoubleTree.

3. Concrete means “show, don’t tell”. Use vivid language to help people visualise the content.

4. Credible. Using statistics is a way to show credibility, but numbers aren’t very memorable. Give numbers some context, put things in comparison with what we know and understand, or let your audience test it out themselves.

5. Emotion is about pulling on the heartstrings and getting people to care about your message. Think about what emotion you want the audience to feel, and keep asking why until you find the emotional core of why people do something. Compare the sentences below. Are the concrete or abstract examples more emotional?

Concrete ideas generate more emotion. Photo credit: Jonah Berger, Wharton Online.

6. Stories. Stories engage people through active listening and drive action. Ideas or messages become more memorable when you tell them through a story.

“It’s not random luck or chance why some things become popular and others fail,” Berger says. Other than the lessons discussed above, one must understand the science of social networks and network effects — that people tend to be friends with others like them, or that a product or service is more valuable the more people use it, for example.

The idea is that viral content spreads further beyond the social networks. Depending on the complexity of your product, you can choose to focus your marketing efforts in one geography or demography, or spread out your resources in different areas. For instance, if product adoption is more costly or risky, more research or doses of influence is required, so you’d have to concentrate your resources on people in the same area or social network.

Clarissa Santoso is a Marketing Communications Specialist at Arcadier, a SaaS company that powers next generation marketplace ideas. You can follow Arcadier on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for the latest insights on the Sharing Economy.