The Psychology Behind Viral Content

The Psychology Behind Viral Content

Written by:
Amanda Wilks

Sep 22, 2016
psychology viral content

The web is a crowded and busy place flooding us with information every second of every day. Sometimes we skim and skip around this intricate thicket of articles, images, videos and infographics without paying too much attention to them.

And sometimes we stumble upon something so amazing we click the “share” button before we get to blink. In the second situation, we have just become a small wheel in the complex machinery that turns a simple piece of content into a viral one.

Some content pieces had what it took to become viral way before the internet era. We called that phenomenon “word of mouth” and it helped products and ideas to spread around with the speed of light.

In today’s world, with so many communication means available, it should be easy enough for anyone to create a viral piece and unleash it into the world. Unfortunately, not everything online goes viral. Some pieces attract millions of eyeballs while others get their fair number of shares without entering the VIP club. Why?


A Little Thing Called Brain

psychology viral content decision brain

While we boast about making decisions and engaging in problem-solving strategies based on our reason, logic, verified facts and statistics, studies show that many of our decisions stem from our emotional approach to things.

As we mentioned before, it seems that many of our choices are emotion-triggered – sharing content included. As long as you understand that everything you feel is managed by your brain, you are on the right path.


What Makes a Piece of Content Viral?

psychology viral content emotions ingredients

If the answer to this question were easy, everybody would create viral content every day. From a neuropsychological standpoint, the target audience of your campaign consists of your users’ brains.

A high-quality, original, actionable, readable and enjoyable piece of content may gain a few hundred social shares and some backlinks, but it takes more than that to become viral. You need to add some secret ingredients to the mix.


1 Novelty

psychology viral content novelty

Neuroscience researchers found some time ago that we have a region in the mid-brain (substantia nigra/ventral tegmental) that is responsible for regulating motivation and reward processing by managing our dopamine levels.

The same area also responds better to novelty in our lives. In other words, when your brain stumbles upon a new idea or piece of content it floods you with dopamine, making you feel rewarded and compelled to search for more.

How can we translate this process into content marketing? The problem is that nothing is really new anymore. Somebody, someday, had an idea and capitalized on it. Can you do something about it?

Brian Dean from Backlinko has some serious case studies that prove we can. In a nutshell, the SEO expert advises us to start from an idea or a piece of content that already proved successful in the past.

  • You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but use a good wheel to work with – use Google Trends to find some hot topics to work on and Buzzsumo to learn what posts gained most social shares.
  • Next, you should analyze the successful content and improve it even further by strengthening its weak points and adding new and relevant information to it. Can you find a new medium to work with? Can your brand get a piece of the viral loop? Is there a new idea you can spin to gain leverage? Is the trend consistent with your brand and can your audiences resonate with the new idea?
  • Promote it everywhere until it gets picked up and turned viral.

Brian swears by this Skyscraper Technique as it proves useful no matter what industry you activate in. After all, your users’ brains can’t wait to bask in a piece of content that brings them something new to the table and entices them to dig deeper.

Moreover, you can also play on your users’ brain capacity of developing new synapses. This is how new ideas generate: If you put together two seemingly different ideas together and give them a spin, the brain gets flooded with creative joy. In marketing, this gets translated into “why didn’t I think of this before?”

As a piece of advice, try to mash up two trending, but apparently unrelated concepts and trigger passion in your users – they will be more than happy to share your content. A simple fashion guide can be mashed up with an article on the best mortician schools of the year and become viral overnight. Fashion and death, what can be more intriguing?


2 Curiosity

psychology viral content curiosity

Curiosity takes a huge chunk of the psychological research on viral content. Just to give you a taste of things, Upworthy tests around 25 headlines for their pieces before choosing the one to strike gold.

We're not talking about clickbait here, but genuine titles and social media posts that play on people’s curiosity. In the field, this process is known as the Information Gap Theory of Curiosity.

People tend to click, read and share content whenever they feel that there is a gap between what they know and what they want to know. This idea is compatible with a content creation strategy that strives to provide useful, relevant and actionable content to your readers.

If you offer users the chance of filling this gap they will feel motivated to share your piece so others can learn something as well.

When you start working on your next viral piece, begin with a catchy title and offer solid information but always keep in mind that you have to build your entire argument on why people want to know more.


3 Emotions

psychology viral content emotions

As we said before, there are at least 10 ways to make your content go viral. The hardware of this process is represented by how you construct your piece (headline, visuals, keywords, readability, relevance, length, type of post, interactivity, etc.).

The software of this process is represented by the emotions your piece has to trigger in people so they can all contribute to the viral spreading. One of the leading factors that contribute to a piece becoming viral is the emotions it sparks in the hearts of your users.

A recent study conducted by Fractl narrowed down the top 10 emotions that are most likely to become viral:

  • Amusement
  • Interest
  • Surprise
  • Happiness
  • Delight
  • Pleasure
  • Joy
  • Hope
  • Affection
  • Excitement

Never underestimate the power of negative emotions as well. Research shows that content that played in the negative emotions team also went viral for all the right reasons. Some negative emotions that work best are:

viral content emotions sadness fear anger disgust
  • Fear: Content that warns and increases awareness has more chances to become viral.
  • Sadness: A sad video can become viral because people empathize with a certain story and want others to empathize as well to increase awareness or show admiration.
  • Anger: A content piece that makes people angry is more likely to be shared as people are inclined to express their outrage on a given topic and want others to join their ranks.
  • Disgust: Disgusting pieces can play either the “so bad it’s good” humorous game or the “warning, this is bad” game.

What you need to know is that people don’t experience one emotion at a time, but rather in different intensity levels. This is why the best and most viral posts target a blend of positive and negative emotions altogether.

When it comes to the secret of making a post viral, there are three basic ingredients that work no matter the industry, the type of content or the target audience:

  • Positive feelings of joy, interest, anticipation, and trust
  • Combined emotions: viral posts that trigger both positive and negative emotions are more likely to become viral
  • Surprise (positive or negative) is your trump card when you want to make a post go viral.

One of the simplest strategies to make a piece of content go viral can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Pick a topic that you know had major viral success in the past.
  • Analyze it and understand what emotions it might have triggered.
  • Take the topic and improve on it – there is always room for the better, and there is surely new information you can add to increase its quality, length, relevance, usefulness and so on.
  • Mix the topic with a seemingly unrelated concept that fills in the information and curiosity gap, spinning things until you get a new angle on the issue.
  • Analyze what emotions can stem from this new piece: interest, sadness, amusement or all of the above. Always add the surprise element!
  • Use your marketing skills to promote the piece.


The Other Side of the Coin


Telling a marketer in our day and time that he should know his audience sounds like an insult. Audience targeting is a never ending process and goes beyond who people are and what people want. When it comes to the psychology of your users – you know, the ones who will make viral your viral content – things are a little trickier.


Age Matters from an Emotional Point of View

Recent studies show that Millennials, young and older, are less interested, less surprised and less emotionally involved with an image or written content.

They do share music, articles, and videos, but joy, trust or interest are on the low with them, a problem that translates into harder targeting.

On the other hand, this age group promptly reacts to dynamic, new, interactive and surprising content that engages them personally rather than statically floods them with information. They are flooded enough.


Tips to Consider

If Millennials make your target group, go back to the drawing board and tailor your content piece focusing on novelty, curiosity and the feeling of surprise, convincing their brains to jump at the opportunity of some dopamine release.

Tap into emerging content types and mash them up to make Millennials feel they can’t sleep at night until they share your video, infographic, quiz, flipbook, handout, blog post and so on.


Gender Matters As Well


What marketers need to understand is that content shouldn’t be tailored only considering men and women’s preferences, interests and habits. “Women read more than men so we will tailor our book selling campaign to them” is so basic it doesn’t even work. What you need is to understand the following key concepts:


Men feel more joy in relationship to content.

Men have a narrower range of emotions and reactions than women do. In other words, if you want engagement, sharing and viral spreading your content should focus on blending in both positive and negative emotions.


Women feel more trust than men.

Women are able to experience a very wide range of emotions altogether. If your target group is mainly composed of women, make sure you play the trust card first and then try to trigger more complex and broad positive emotional responses.

If you want women to trust what they see/read and contribute to the viral spreading of your content, one simple way is to back-up your message with solid references that women already know about and trust in. This can be easily done by building your content on reliable sources or with the help of influencers.

Your Fashion and Death article might trigger trust if you find at least a true quote offered by a celebrity or female influencer saying that wearing black all the time is stylish not Morticia Adams-creepy.

This will trigger trust first, and then curiosity, then surprise and then some shares – after all, women do have friends who dress up a bit quirkier and those friends need to learn they are not alone.


Show, don’t tell. 

Take it from Buzzfeed’s Tasty short videos: If you want your innovative and rather strange mix of chicken and chocolate recipe to take wings, show the making process of the said dish, don’t just bullet point ingredients.

People tend to trust things more when they see them with their own eyes, and a great meal recipe is better displayed visually. The chicken chocolate dish can get viral if women saw its making; felt surprised enough to think about it and excited enough to share it while compelling others to try it as well.


Be the answer they were looking for. 

Never forget that no matter what you post online, it has to offer value (cat pictures and videos make us laugh and empathize with other cat owners, so this is a rock-solid value from a psychological point of view).

So if your female audience seems to be looking for something in particular (how to properly and fashionably dress for a contemporary funeral), answer this question with bullet-proof content that is usable, actionable, reasonable to implement and so on.

In any given day, there are over 4.75 billion pieces of content published on Facebook and over 144,000 hours of video uploaded to YouTube. Not all of them go viral, and that’s a fact.

Making a post spread with the speed of light is like baking a cake: you have the recipe, and you have the ingredients, but sometimes you need to fine tune, tweak, add, withdraw and change everything until you get the perfect product.

A viral post creation process will come with its fair share of trials and errors even if you follow the recipe to the letter.


Your Turn

Part of the process of creating content that strikes an emotional nerve in your audience and creates ripples across the web is appealing to the five senses.

While we're still a ways off from mainstreaming multi-sensory experiences, communicators can already create this type of content, even with limited time and resources.

For example, interactive and animated infographics, images and slide decks appeal not only to the sense of sight, but the sense of hearing through audio and the sense of touch through the interactive experience of clicking, scrolling and hovering.

There are free tools like Visme that allow users to create all of the above--thereby increasing the chances of creating content that actually engages and inspires viewers to click, like, comment and share with the rest of the world. Try it for free here.

And if you have your own advice for viral content creation, we'd love to hear from you. Don't hesitate to drop us a line in the comments section below!

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    About the Author

    Amanda Wilks is a Boston University graduate and a Digital Marketing Strategist. She has a great interest in everything related to content marketing, online marketing and corporate and personal branding.

    10 responses to “The Psychology Behind Viral Content”

    1. Amanda thank you so much for your article, so inspiring and much to learn.
      I direct an online university, a new university style Guatemala. It gives an opportunity to most of our young and not so young people in our country, as well as any Spanish speaking person.
      One of our main problems is motivation of our students, so i am learning a great del from you article and will learn more.
      If there is something else i should read, study, learn from, please let me know.
      Thank a lot.

      • Amanda Wilks says:

        Hi there, Igumeni. Thank you for reading my article and giving me a prompt for further work. Motivation is a highly interesting topic. I will keep it in mind and reflect on what I can contribute. What I can quickly suggest is Ted Talks, there isn’t a rock on this matter that those guys have not lifted to study and share with the rest of us. Good luck with your university project and thanks again for your comment!

    2. Anand Damani says:

      Just when we assume that science and logic are not applicable to human brain articles like this prove that human brains are programmed and predictable.
      Does creativity really exist or Men just think something as creative when they are not fully informed or knowledgeable about the same.

    3. Warren Low Kum says:

      Great article Amanda. Fullbofvuse and practical advice. Thanks. Let’s make it viral

    4. […] the science behind effective communication. You can also take a look at our investigation of the psychology behind viral content and how to market to left- and right-brained […]

    5. test says:

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    6. Leo Hagens says:

      Amanda, thank you for your practical input. I gave myself “the biggest marketing challenge ever” all for Corona charity…. after reading your post I’m again 1 step further…Now looking for the best illustrator.
      I’m nervous: it’s a first time right challenge.

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