6 Great Principles That Probably Still Won’t Make Your Content Go Viral

Written by Phil Birss: Group CEO.
· 4 minute read

“It’s gone viral” can evoke two very different reactions depending on whether you’re stood in front of your doctor or your digital marketing agency.

Somewhat counterintuitively however, the rise of social media apps has meant that this conversation is much more likely to occur in your doctor’s office than in the boardroom, as a number of experts have hypothesised that dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr have increased the risk of STDs. In contrast, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are constantly finding ways to throttle the chances of your latest marketing campaign “going viral” despite regular requests by clients.

The problem businesses have is that they are no longer just competing with one another for consumers attention, they are also competing with the consumers themselves. Whether it be the latest YouTube ‘celebrity’ dipping themselves in a tub filled with hot sauce (yes that actually happened), or your gran pouring a bucket full of ice over herself, there are quite simply millions of distractions from your potential viral hit.

The problem is that the fundamental principle of “going viral” is completely flawed. Does the idiot in the video above make you want to go out and buy hot sauce? If you have even a modicum of common sense and answered no then read on (if not, this probably isn’t for you)…

Whilst reaching millions of people might look great in a slide deck, it’s impact on your company’s bottom line is likely to be pretty negligible, that’s because often these viral hits have absolutely bugger all to do with the product or business they are trying to promote. Instead, marketers should be focussing on creating content that resonates with their core audience, and then finding ways to amplify it.

Let’s face it, if you owned Bugatti, would you rather your next video has two viewers (both of whom happen to be recent lottery winners), or two million hits (half of which probably come from the same bloke who needs a mid-afternoon distraction from the latest episode of Jeremy Kyle). Now obviously, it’s pretty unlikely that out of two views, both will be from lottery winners, however there’s a number of things you can do to help increase the likelihood of your content resonating with, and being shared by your key target audience.

Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where he has spent over 15 years studying how social influence works and how it drives products and ideas to catch on. Off the back of this research he published the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, which is well worth a read, even if you don’t work in marketing. Within the book, Berger outlines six principles that he believes hugely increase the likelihood of people not just reading or viewing your content, but actually sharing it.

The six principles he outlines are as follows;

1. Social Currency

The idea of social currency is that people like to look good, ergo they are more likely to share content that reflects positively on them. Why do you think so many people share those stupid IQ test results on Facebook? It’s because they artificially inflate users scores in order to make the participant look smarter than they are, and thus encourage them to share their results publicly so that their other friends can fall into the same trap (sorry if I’ve shattered any illusions of future Mensa inductions).

2. Triggers

Having something that is easy to remember about your product idea helps keep it top of mind, especially if you can relate it to a common event or occurrence. Take for example Coca Cola at Christmas – not only did they change the colour of santa’s suit, but there are entire communities on Facebook dedicated to the first play of the truck advert each year, to the point where you’ll actually hear people proclaim out loud “it isn’t Christmas until I’ve seen the Coca Cola advert”.

3. Emotion

Evoking an emotion in your customers such as awe or inspiration is going to increase the likelihood of them sharing your content. Take the below example from Google who created an ad based around a father storing memories in Gmail for his daughter as she grows up. Not only does it pull on pretty much everyone’s heart strings, but it also creates an immediate emotional resonance with any parent out there.


4. Public

As the saying goes “monkey see, monkey do”. As deep and complex as we all like to think we are, the reality is that no matter how much we may try to hide it, we all like to fit in and be one of the ‘cool kids’. The basic principle here therefore is that the more visible your brand is, the more likely people are to want it. Remember how secondary schools were awash with Livestrong bands for a while – in the end, people barely even knew what they were for, they just knew they had to have one in order to fit in.

5. Practical Value

People are much more likely to interact with, or share your content if it offers some kind of value. Whether it’s humour, industry insight, or subject specific knowledge, people want to consume content that goes above and beyond. For example the P&G owned Pampers microsite provides a ton of useful tips on everything from sleep to nutrition that goes well above and beyond how to change a nappy in order to provide practical and useful information to parents without shoving product down their throats.

6. Stories

Throughout human history, we have told stories to entertain, it therefore makes sense that tying your brand story into a cohesive narrative can create an experience for your customers. The Sainsburys Christmas advert from a few years ago is a great example of this, as the supermarket chain promoted their 100 year anniversary in conjunction with the Royal British Legion to recreate famous scenes from a World War I truce that also occurred 100 years ago.

Whilst the above principles are far from a guarantee of your content going viral, what they do is provide practical tips and a framework from which you can create a cohesive content marketing strategy that is likely to resonate with your core audience, and help increase your brand exposure.