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What makes online content go viral?

Virality: coveted, elusive, fleeting. The ultimate goal for all social media marketers, attained by a chosen few, and seldomly according to plan. We all create content with the hope that at least some of it will stick in the collective cyber-memory for longer than a couple of minutes on top of the feed.

But what makes something go viral? Why do people choose to share specific content on social media? A pinch of psychology can help answer those questions.

Professor Jonas Berger from University of Pennsylvania is a marketing researcher hooked on how word-of-mouth and social influence work. In his book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On”, he pins down the six factors behind the viral success of anything, including your next marketing campaign.

Say hello to the STEPPS model. The acronym stands for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotions, Public, Practical Value and Stories, and here is what makes each factor so important.

Social currency

People would only share either what is important to them or what makes them look good in the eyes of others; ideally, both.

When someone shares content about your brand or organisation, they spend their social currency on YOU. And if other people like this content, then the social currency of both the sharer and your brand increases.

Takeaway for marketers: publish informative content that brings value for your target audience. Create a sense of exclusivity around your content. People would like to see themselves as an anointed minority that gets access to premium content to share with the rest of the world. Apple’s slogan “Think different” is a good example of branding aimed to build a community based on a sense of exclusivity.


The most successful brands build their campaigns around triggers, or words or ideas that immediately flare up people’s associations with the brand. How about KitKat’s slogan, “Have a break? Have a KitKat”: it aims to create an association between the chocolate bar and rest breaks at work, so that the next thing people remember during their afternoon coffee break would be to buy a KitKat.

Takeaway: What is the first thing people associate with your brand? Work towards making it easy-to-remember and, most of all, pleasant!


Emotion creates action; content that evokes emotions gets shared more often than other types of content. There is a caveat though: only strong emotions lead to social media shares.

One very strong emotion is anger: researchers have unanimously concluded that it produces the ultimate buzz on social media. This paper from Yale University found that rage-inducing content receives a lot of online endorsement (in the form of likes) and amplification (a.k.a. shares). Such level of public attention can serve as a reward in itself, and even condition people into becoming “angrier”, prompting them to share more rage-laden content in the future (Brady, W. et al, 2021).

Another research found that content written in negative emotional language spreads more broadly on social media than content describing positive emotions (Schöne, P. et al. 2021).

However, you may not necessarily want to associate your brand with anger, despite its big virality potential… right?

Strong positive emotions can help you build positive brand associations. By evoking strong feelings of happiness, joy, awe, or surprise with your content, your brand can reach bigger audiences.

Surprise is one especially interesting emotion to weave into your marketing campaigns: it is a strong emotion that feeds out of the human brain’s organic necessity for novelty.

When we are presented with a new stimulus, our brain chemistry changes in a second: a region in our midbrain called substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA) fires up, releasing dopamine, which makes us immediately alert and motivated to learn (Bunzeck and Düzel, 2006).

However, this midbrain activity only kicks in when we see something absolutely new and unfamiliar to us. For marketers, that means that creating 100% original content that evokes surprise may you’re your boost content virality.


The more public something is, the more likely people will imitate it. Try to achieve extra coverage and increase your brand visibility by references from the right websites or through collaboration with well selected influencers.

Aim towards creating content with long shelf-life: something that can be relevant for your audience in six months or a year from now. There is nothing more rewarding than to see that a post you published a month ago suddenly gets picked up by an online community!

Practical value

People love news they can use. Forget about the witty copy or fancy video for a moment: your audience desires useful information first and foremost. You will be surprised at the level of low-quality content out there that gets traction simply because it is practical. 

Your takeaway here: think of ways you can be useful to your audience. Publish a free eBook, manual, webinar. Summarise important data in an infographic. Give people the resources to achieve something. Get out there and help them solve their problem: turn your Twitter account into a customer support desk, if needed.


Our brain loves stories: we remember them better and may retell them even after a long time. Have you coined your brand messaging? What is your brand story? Coming up with a good story is the perfect way to achieve virality and boost your brand visibility!

Eager to learn more? Jonah Berger teaches this short and exciting course at Coursera that will take you through his STEPPS model step-by-step. Check it out!

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