How Can I Make My Content Go Viral?

Marie Ennis-O'Connor
7 min readAug 20, 2018

Short Answer — You Can’t. But don’t stop reading yet!

“Going viral” is one of those social media marketing phrases that really makes me cringe. Trying to create content solely for the purpose of “going viral” is a recipe for failure. Staying focused on what your audience needs from you, on the other hand, is your best way of getting recognized by the people who matter most to your business.

Viral content is seen as marketing’s Holy Grail, but the truth is there is no formula for going viral. Having analyzed the most successful content shared back in 2015, Buzzsumo concluded:

“Viral posts remain outliers, and unfortunately there is no magic formula to go viral. Going viral is like alchemy, and even the best sites cannot consistently replicate the success of their top posts.”

That’s not to say that we can’t still draw on the lessons learned from successful viral campaigns to improve the shareability and engagement of our own content.

In this article, I’m going to share 7 keys that will help you make your content more share-worthy and less likely to slip under the radar.

7 Keys To Creating Share-Worthy Content

1. Create an Emotional Response

The word “emotion” is a combination of the prefix e-, meaning “away,” and the Latin movere, meaning “to move.” In this sense, emotions break us away from our standstills, moving us in new directions and prompting us to take action.

Numerous studies have found emotional arousal plays a key role in driving social sharing. In 2012, researchers Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman published research based on an analysis of 7,000 articles from the New York Times to see which types of articles were most shared by email.

The results indicate that virality is partially driven by physiological arousal.

“Content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral. Content that evokes low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions (e.g., sadness) is less viral.” — What Makes Online Content Viral?

The Harvard Business Review released research in 2016 which showed that creating a powerful emotional experience increases the chances of going viral. The research, based on an analysis by of the top 100 images of the year from, as voted on, found:

  • A significant correlation between content views and positive feelings (specifically joy, interest, anticipation, and trust).
  • Negative emotions were less commonly found in highly viral content than positive emotions, but viral success was still possible when negative emotion also evoked anticipation and surprise.
  • The emotion of admiration was very commonly found in highly shared content, an unexpected result.
Heatmap of the aggregate emotional data, representing the totals compiled (HBR)

Once you understand how to strike the right emotional chords with your message, you can greatly increase your chance of getting your content widely shared.

Recommended Reading: 5 Ways to Connect with Your Audience on an Emotional Level

2. Add an Element of Surprise

Marketo’s 2013 survey with Brian Carter on why people share on Facebook found that people love to share amazing and surprising content. Highly shareable content tends to present something unexpected, unusual, counterintuitive, or novel — what Seth Godin calls “a purple cow.”

In a sea of me-too shares, sharing remarkable content will make you stand out like a purple cow in a field of monochrome Holsteins.

The most shared article on Huffington Post in 2016 illustrates this element of surprise. The article, written by author Johann Hari about addiction, highlighted new research challenging the prevailing wisdom about addiction. It combined research with a provocative title.

3. Tell a Real Story

Humans love stories and we particularly love to share heart-warming stories. Effective stories inspire people by creating human connection and emotional resonance. In 2015, an article about a husband and wife celebrating 82 years of marriage, topped USA Today’s most shared content. Not only was the story uplifting and inspirational, it shared insights on reaching over 100 years of age (if you’re interested — the couple describes a healthy diet and frequent naps as the secret to growing old!).

Marie Yoland Eveillard speaks with her father Duranord Veillard, who will celebrate his 108th birthday on Saturday, and mother Jeanne Veillard, in Spring Valley. Jeanne turns 105 in May. The couple got married in Haiti in 1932. Tania Savayan/The Journal News

4. Use Images

Source: WhiskData

Study after study confirms that how you create and share content matters — with visual content leading the way. Visual content is 40x more likely to get shared on social media than other types of content according to research by Buffer.

To determine social media content virality, particularly images, Marco Guerini, Jacopo Staiano, and Davide Albanese in their paper, “Exploring Image Virality in Google Plus,” analyzed the contents and characteristics of Google+ posts. They found that posts containing an image are three times more likely to have a high number of resharers than text-only posts.

5. Leverage A Current Cultural Trend

Tapping into cultural trends is all about marketing in the moment. This works because people are most interested in “what’s happening now.”

One of the best “marketing in the moment” moments was this tweet by Oreo which came out right as a blackout delayed the 2013 Superbowl for more than 30 minutes. As you can see below the tweet went instantly viral.

Ellen DeGeneres’s 2014 Oscar selfie, retweeted by more than 2.9 million Twitter users fits the scenario of leveraging a cultural trend — the word selfie was crowned Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year in 2013.

Similarly, the #nomakeupselfie campaign, in which women posted pictures of themselves without make-up in order to raise money for cancer research, tapped into the selfie trend. The campaign raised (Stg)£8 million for Cancer Research UK in its first week alone. This campaign wasn’t even the charity’s idea. The organization leveraged a cultural trend that was already sweeping the Internet.

No Make-Up Selfie

While the Oscar selfie took us by surprise, there are other trends which are more predictable, for example, major sporting events like the Super Bowl in the US, or the World Cup.

Google’s annual list of top searches around the world

If you want to create engaging content, leverage trends using the following tools.

  • Google Trends — filter your search by country, topic, category, specific topic, content type, and more;
  • Buzzfeed — its trending section is perfect for searching for hot topics;
  • Buzzsumo — search for the most shared web content on a specific topic;
  • Reddit — aggregates trending content from all over the internet and shows the hottest (most upvoted) topics on the main page.

Recommended Reading: The real 10-year challenge: how the hashtag is being used to raise awareness of serious issues

6. Tap the Power of Influencers

Influencers are message catalysts — powerful allies in helping you amplify your key messages and increasing your social proof. As we have seen from previous examples, celebrity involvement gives a boost to the viral nature of a campaign. While you may not be able to convince Ellen or Oprah to join your campaign, there are nevertheless influencers in your space who can help you spread the word.

Use tools like Followerwonk, and PeerIndex to help you identify your industry influencers.

7. Make It Easy to Share

Don’t forget the basics by adding sharing buttons to your content. BrightEdge’s analysis of 4+ million tweets found that including a Twitter button increased Twitter mentions almost sevenfold. This seems so obvious that it’s almost not worth mentioning. Yet, time and again, I see websites with no sharing buttons or buttons so tiny they are almost hidden from view. Visitors are not going to hunt around your website looking for sharing buttons. Even if you include sharing buttons, don’t assume your audience will share your content. Adding a Call-to-Action to all your content is a practical way to encourage your audience to like, share, and engage with your content.

To Wrap Up

Viral content is seen as marketing’s Holy Grail, but the truth is there is no formula for going viral.

It’s not always clear what will ignite a post and prompt sharing.

While you cannot predict or control marketing variables such as cultural trends, you can control the quality of your content. Applying the key lessons in this post will help you make your content more share-worthy and less likely to slip under the radar. Then all you need is a little luck and a lot of persistence!

You might also like to read

5 Powerful Copywriting Tactics That Will Make Your Content Go Viral

7 Hot Tips For Creating Viral Content That Packs A Global Punch

Not Just A Crock: The Viral Word-Of-Mouth Success Of Instant Pot

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