Creating Viral Content – Lessons from “Contagious: Why Things Catch On”

We get asked pretty often, ” What is the key to creating viral content? ”  And while it’s easy to say that virality is random, that’s really not true.  There are key principles that help with the spread of ideas, products, and services.  And, of course, increasing the popularity of your offerings is incredibly important to a successful business!

I recently read “Contagious – How Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger, who spent years researching exactly what makes content spread quickly, everything from New York Times articles to blenders.  I’ve summarized some of the major points below but, of course, I would recommend picking up a copy of the book yourself!

Word of Mouth is naturally directed towards an interested audience.

There are all different types of marketing and many of those can be effective for your business if done well.  And one of the biggest benefits of “word of mouth” marketing is that it’s directed towards an interested audience.

We don’t share a news story or recommendation with everyone we know.  Rather, we tend to select particular people who we think would find that given piece of information most relevant.

Think about it: if your friend is currently looking to purchase a house, you would probably recommend a real estate agent for them.  If they’re visiting your hometown, you might recommend a restaurant that you love.  Or if they’re shopping for a dishwasher, you might tell them why yours is the best.  Getting people talking is a key part of creating viral content!

So what does that mean for your business?  It means that, with “word of mouth” marketing, you save a lot of marketing dollars by putting your products or services in front of people that are actively shopping for your products or services.  Just like with inbound marketing tactics (SEO, social media, etc.) it’s an excellent long-term strategy for growth.

People share things that make them look good.

We love to share things.  That’s what social media is all about, isn’t it?

The choices that we make show our identity.  And the things we talk about say a lot about ourselves as well.  So people like to talk about things that make them seem smart, funny, or cool.  And this is something that we can use in our businesses and marketing strategies.

Give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting your products and ideas along the way.

How do you do this?  Try adding something truly unique to your marketing, products, or services.  Something that stands out so much or is so surprising that people can’t help but talk about it!

You could break the mold in your industry by providing customer service that absolutely blows away your clients.  Create a commercial that is so funny that people just have to talk about it with their friends.  Design your product to do something that people may have thought was impossible.  This is a big part of creating viral content!

big shake's death row challenge - an example of creating viral content

One of our clients, Big Shake’s Hot Chicken and Fish, created the Death Row Challenge, which dares customers to eat three, incredibly host chicken fingers in less than five minutes.  If they can accomplish this, they win $100 and their picture featured on the wall!  People started telling their friends about how spicy the chicken is and it drove more customers to eat there, even if they didn’t participate in the Death Row Challenge!  Big Shake’s was even featured on the Travel Channel, who heard about the challenge through word of mouth.

So what can you create in your business that will get people talking?

Make your customers feel like insiders.

Think about ways to make your products/services seem exclusive or scarce.  Airlines and credit cards do this well by creating reward systems for their loyal customers.  It keeps people coming back and encourages them to talk about their exclusive benefits with their friends and family members!

Here are some examples of making your customers feel like insiders:

  • 24-hour sales.  These make customers feel like they have the inside scoop on great deals!
  • Limited availability.  Products that “disappear” after a certain number of hours or days encourage “fear of missing out” and make your customers feel like they have exclusive access to great products.  Think the Disney Vault or the McRib sandwich.
  • Discounts/sales only available to certain customers.  Email coupon codes specific to your repeat or loyal customers that only they have access to.  It makes them feel special and keeps them coming back!
  • Exclusive access.  Hide some of your resources or blog content behind a login page and ask people to sign up with their email address for access.  It makes your content seem even more valuable and makes your members feel like they have a leg up on other site visitors!

Use triggers to remind customers of related ideas.

Triggers make us think of related things.  Peanut butter makes us think of jelly.  French music makes us think of French food.  We think about lotion when our hands are dry and cracking.  We think about Ziplock bags when we pack our kids’ lunches in the morning.

Spread the news about your product where people ARE; it’s important to use triggers that people encounter frequently.  Show people in your commercials doing what they do regularly (rather than once a year, like a holiday).  Then, do those things every day or every week, they’ll be triggered to think about your product or service.

Frequency, however, must also be balanced with the strength of the link…Linking a product or idea with a stimulus that is already associated with many things isn’t as effective as forging a fresher, more original link.

Kit Kat’s did a great job of this with their catchy “give me a break” jingle.  They associated their candy bars with snack breaks so people started singing their song and, ultimately, eating Kit Kats during their breaks at work.

Evoke emotions.

Want your video to go viral or your blog post to get more shares?  Think about topics that inspire emotion.

Sharing emotions helps us connect…[Sharing something with a friend that makes him feel similar emotions] highlights our similarities and reminds us how much we have in common.  Emotion sharing is thus a bit like social glue, maintaining and strengthening our relationships.  Even if we’re not in the same place, the fact that we both feel the same way bonds us together.

Shared emotions could be awe, humor, anger, etc.  But you want to try to focus on emotions that cause physiological arousal, like anger, excitement, or anxiety.  Those types of emotions incite us to take action.

Low arousal emotions include sadness.  When we’re sad, we don’t want to take action; we want to curl up and power down.  Those aren’t the types of emotions that people talk about!

So rather than laying out the facts, we should focus more on feelings, the things that make people take action.  Consider this when creating ads, filming commercials, and writing blog posts.

This Google “Parisian Love” commercial is an amazing example of invoking emotion!

Google managed to envoke a ton of feeling while ONLY using their search engine – no other imagery at all!  They worked to make a relatively boring product (a search engine) connect with their audience in an emotional way, hence creating viral content.

Provide some sort of value.

When creating viral content, work on providing valuable information to your customers.  This is where a blog can really play a big role as well as an email newsletter.  Answer their frequently asked questions.  Provide tips that are relevant to them.  This not only creates content that your audience will want to share, it is an opportunity to share your knowledge and expertise.

But pay attention to how you present your information.

[an example of a successful email has] a short, one-page note, with a key header article and three or four main links below it.  It’s easy to see what the main points are and, if you want to find out more, you can simply click on the links.

Make your articles concise but thorough, with titles that grab attention.  Lists like “5 Must-Have Spring Outfits” or “10 Ways to Save Money This Year” are a great way to present information.

Plus, make sure that the information that you put out appeals to your target audience.

Narrower content may actually be more likely to be shared because it reminds people of a specific friend or family member and makes them feel compelled to pass it along.

Share stories.

Stories give us an easy way to share information!  They save a lot of time and hassle but are also memorable. They happen in normal conversations but are essentially advertisements in disguise.

One of my favorite examples of storytelling in advertising is from Lego.  Take a look at this ad.  It’s saying so much more than the facts!  Instead, it tells the story of a dad building a tower with his son before bedtime.  That also has the emotional appeal that we talked about earlier.

lego ad - an example of viral content

Stories can be told in a variety of formats – publicity stunts, digital ads, commercials, blog posts, videos, PR, social media – and they’re incredibly valuable.

But make sure your story is directly related to your product, service, or message.  Otherwise, it may be talked about, but your brand may never be mentioned.  You want the brand to be a natural part of the conversation.  After all, if they can’t relate the story back to you, then it won’t be helpful even if it goes viral.


So what’s the point of all of this?  Put thought into the decisions you make in your business and when creating viral content.  Before you publish something, consider these questions:

  1. Does talking about your product or idea make people look good?
  2. What triggers can you relate to your product or service?
  3. Does your content generate emotions?
  4. How can you package your knowledge into information others will want to share?
  5. Is your product or idea embedded in a story that people want to share?

And, as always, if you’re looking for help with marketing strategy or creating viral content, we’d love to hear from you!

By |2018-03-20T03:20:21+00:00March 20th, 2018|Marketing|0 Comments

Leave A Comment