How to Create Viral Content

17 November 2015

Have you ever heard of the phrase “going viral”? Sure you have, but have you ever stopped for a moment explore what it means? This expression describes content that spreads at a rapid rate among online users. This happens especially on popular social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This may not be directly beneficial for your website, but it can increase your traffic figures and perhaps lead to more sales in the long run.

But before you start planning how to create viral content, you should ask yourself: what exactly makes content go viral? What motivates users to share content with millions of other users? All viral content shares common characteristics and there many successful examples to illustrate that. Two students from the University of PennsylvaniaKatherine Milkman and Jonah Berger, published a study earlier this year titled “What makes Online Content Go Viral”. They found that the key component was to create content that could evoke “high-arousal emotions”.

Stimulation of intense feelings

These “high-arousal emotions” can range from the innocent to the most wild and dark. Stimulating our emotions and causing arousal is something that goes beyond logic. This the most profound reason why viral videos are not boring – they manage to stimulate our senses in a way that makes it hard not to react.

One controversial issue is whether all kinds of emotional stimulation go viral. It seems like most people prefer to view and share videos of a positive nature.  A small minority of viral videos evoking emotions like fear, anger, or disgust for example have managed to go viral as well.  Of course certain emotions seem more popular than others, no matter how positive or negative they are. For example:

  • Acts of kindness, joy, generosity and positive surprises, are the viral content that people are most likely to share.
  • Content that causes anger, fear or anxiety, is the popular negative emotions that are most likely to go viral. Although these are less popular than positive ones.
  • Content that just shows something  either positive or negative but “nerveless” e.g. a scene that causes mild sadness, apathy  or plain admiration is less likely to go viral.

There is a certain level of risk when posting content which may provoke a negative reaction. Some countries may ban this kind of content as inappropriate. Your safest bet is to post videos that cause a high level of positive emotions.


The  most popular  positive and negative emotions that make content go viral:

  • Excitement/Amazement (positive). It’s what sparks the interest of the people in a positive manner, what makes them get excited and feel in “awe” about something.  They are then willing to share it with others to share in these feelings.
  • Joy/Happiness (positive). That feeling of random, unexpected joy is a popular element of viral videos. If you manage to make people laugh, they are most likely going to share your videos with others. Watch videos with cute animals on YouTube and you’ll know what I mean. The following video featuring a cat hugging her kitten was tremendously popular a few years ago.

  • Stress/Anxiety (negative).Stress is another strong emotion that is sometimes inevitable and drives people to “share” their causes of stress as a means to get relief.
  • Desire(positive). If content can evoke desire in people or the element of lusting for something (and not just in an erotic manner), this could generate a great amount of interest and willingness to share something people crave with others, regardless if it has commercial value or not.
  • Anger (negative). Anger is an intense emotion – and despite the fact that most people avoid it, they sometimes can’t help it and want to “share” their anger in hopes that it will subside.
  • Element of surprise (positive or negative). Anything that can catch the attention of the average person, either in a negative or positive manner, is more likely to go viral. It’s no wonder, as people crave some sort of surprise to get out of their boring routines, even it is just a static picture or short video clip. This video of a sneezing baby panda is a great example..

Other pointers on what makes content go viral are:

  • Using catchy headlines e.g. “You can’t believe what this guy did”/ “Crazy animals take selfies”, “The truth about X”, or any title that manages to grab the attention of people by first reading the title (even if the content could be considered silly or useless for some).
  • Be familiar –  Perhaps you may need to evoke certain emotions people seem to experience and feel familiar with only in this case you will offer a more quirky spin e.g. “Why we become online zombies and how to stop”.
  • Make sure your content is readable – Not many people will view and share your content if it’s low-quality or it doesn’t make any sense. Always make sure your content flows well, and that there are no complex words or sentences that would lead to confusion. Your sentences should not be too long, and be formatted for ease of reading (maybe think of using subheadings).
  • Post content at optimal times – There are times that receive peak online traffic on each social media platform. Post your content when the activity is at its peak to help increase your traffic.