Viral Content: When luck and brillance intersect

Every internet marketer hopes for that moment when luck and brilliance intersect and something goes viral. Less than a decade ago, the internet was controlled by a relatively small group of tech-savvy individuals. Today the pulse of an online campaign is dependent on capturing the attention of a much larger audience. With Facebook closing in on 1 billion users, Twitter at 500 million users and YouTube capturing over 2 billion views a day, the landscape of the internet has completely changed.


When we found an interesting article in the year 2000, we might have emailed it to a few friends. Now, with one click, we can share it with thousands of users and possibly start a ripple effect that will reach millions.


To make things even more interesting, search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo! have heavily built social sharing into their algorithms and brought a whole new purpose to viral content. A brand-new site that earns a social buzz can now outrank even established domains and quickly rise to the top of the search results.


What marketers find over and over again is that although there is no guarantee that any piece of content will go viral, certain types of content creation can significantly improve your odds.


A Little Bit of Psychology


Authenticity can be one of the biggest challenges of content creation, but without this magical ingredient it is difficult to create sensational buzz. Your typical audience is unlikely to share “marketing speak,” or overt promotion of a specific brand. Instead audiences look for transparent, brilliant and conversational content that will enrich their image online. Content is most often shared when it evokes strong emotion and makes the sharer look funnier, smarter or better informed.


  • People share information that evokes emotion
  • People share information that is novel or scarce
  • People share information that they believe will inspire or educate their network
  • People share information that is trending or already popular
  • People share information with a “cause”


Jonah Berger, an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, studied sharing habits of 7,500 articles that appear in the “most emailed” section of The New York Times. He discovered that people were much more likely to share content that triggered strong emotions.  


To build on this research, Berger had subjects jog in place to achieve a higher heart rate before reading an article. His goal was to simulate the physical reaction that occurs when someone experiences a strong emotion. The increased heart rate resulted in more than twice as many shares.


Today’s viral content is held to a brand-new standard and only the most authentic and emotional pieces of content will spark a viral domino effect.


What We Learned From David After Dentist


It often seems that the best exposure happens by accident. Certainly there was no way to predict the kind of ripples that “David After Dentist” or “Charlie Bit My Finger” would have online. Perhaps, though, we can learn something from these fluke moments of fame. Perhaps they were not flukes at all. Maybe they give us some insight into what audiences are willing to share and what they will remember forever. Nearly every piece of viral content takes the users through three important stages.


Stage 1: Make Them Understand


Be edgy, be creative, push your audience out of their box, but remember if people don’t understand your point they will almost never share your creation.


Think about “David After Dentist.” We all loved it and we shared it with anyone who would watch. We did impersonations and parody videos, and in the end we found common ground with people in our lives. Why? Because we identified with David and his dad. It wasn’t complex or charged by an agenda. It was a 7-year-old kid who was feeling something that most of us can identify with and we got it.


Brands that successfully use viral marketing often do so by producing content that puts a twist on something that we understand and can easily identify with. Procter & Gamble’s recent Olympic campaign, for example, has earned millions of YouTube views by reminding us that every athlete has a mom. The concept was simple, but it was something that we understood and, in turn, wanted to share.


Stage 2: Trigger Emotion


Content rarely goes viral without evoking an emotional response of some kind. Something about David was funny to us, and even before we stopped giggling we clicked “share” and 1,000 new faces had a chance to watch the video.


We share more when we feel happy, angry, compassionate or inspired. The key is to make your audience feel something.


Michael Dubin, CEO of The Dollar Shave Club, proved this concept in a hilarious viral video that jabbed at overpriced razor manufacturers and touted a $1 subscription that delivers razors to your door. In just 48 hours from the release of his video, The Dollar Shave Club had added more than 12,000 new monthly subscriptions, and within just a few months his video had gathered over 6 million views.


Stage 3: Earn a Share


If you have been successful, your viewer is now sitting at the edge of her seat. She understood your point, and it created an emotional response. She is now one step from broadcasting your creation to hundreds or even thousands in her network. Now make it easy.


Include visible sharing icons. Make sure your tagline is effective and choose thumbnail images that people will quickly understand. Include a widget that shows how many other viewers have shared the content and conduct regular A/B testing to find out what is most effective.


Begin Distributing Content


Success looks different for every brand, and viral content is difficult to predict. But progress begins by gathering creative minds and beginning to publish and distribute content. At the intersection of luck and brilliance, you might find an idea that goes viral.


Berger, Jonah, Milkman, Katherine L. "Emotion and Virality" Journal of Marketing Research Article Postprint (2011): <>.






Additional Articles

Busiest Online Shopping Day Isn’t When You Expected Cannes 2015: Five takeaways for marketers