The Hot Buttons of Viral Content

November 20, 2015

6:00 pm

Our objectives may vary — monetization for our site, boosting our readership, building awareness for a cause, helping clients succeed — but no matter what business we’re in on the web, our content becoming viral is the rainbow that we chase after.

We may think that it’s all about magic, and to a certain extent, that’s true. For something to become viral, it must first engage and draw out that first click, then it must compel the viewer or reader to share it on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or any of the myriad social media platforms out there. True that there’s no guaranteed recipe for viral content, but the experts who have analyzed hundreds of photos and videos and articles that have gone viral have found commonalities across the different formats and platforms.

High Emotion

Posts which elicit high emotion rank higher in virality than their “milder” counterparts. What does this mean? A ROTFL reaction is better than your run-of-the-mill chuckle. Articles, photos or videos that make people angry or turn them into blubbering crybabies are shared more often than those that merely annoy or touch somewhat, scream-inducing adorableness trumps pretty.

We can apply this learning by going for shock and awe. Go for extreme cuteness, extreme hilarity, outrageousness, or taboo. Make your content about extraordinary situations, characteristics, or feats. That armless rock guitarist who plays his instrument with his feet. That curious undersea creature with an enormous schlong. You can also combine any of these elements to create even more virally viable posts. Like that 3-year-old who can play a Rachmaninov concerto (cuteness plus awe) or that lame dog that was gifted with a wheelchair-like contraption (tearjerker + new invention/breakthrough), or even that YouTube video of Nicole Kidman who talked about an epic fail “hangout” with Jimmy Fallon.


It’s not just about high emotion. Where that emotion is situated in the spectrum of awful and blissful also factors in.  Positivity is not just for those into yoga and new age juju but those from other cultures and demographics as well. Content with positive emotions such as mirth and joy have a higher chance of going viral than those that are tragic or horrifying. That’s not to say you have to leave all the bad stuff out. It is best to find some redemption within that negativity. When talking about big fashion houses employ child labor, include some measures that are being done to eradicate it, mentioning the relevant foundations or petitions. When a storm ravages a village, share about how people are coming together to help. When sharing about downswing of property values, share some tips on how homeowners can mitigate their losses.


There is also an entire “genre” of viral content that is all about what is useful or practical — the tips and hacks type of content. But it’s not just simply about recipes and how-to’s. We’ve got to bring in some high emotion as well, usually shock and awe. Such as that video about how to make a single-serve brownie in a mug in a microwave, or that one about making a “healthy” fried rice by substituting cauliflower for rice — there are some elements of surprise in these posts. Or remember that New York times article about falling in love using a questionnaire. “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This”? That one was immensely provocative, and taps into every person’s inherent desire to love and be loved.


There is still some mystery as to what resonates with netizens, but scientific research has taken out a bit of the guesswork. Take these buttons and go forth and push them.


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Greg Nunan is a digital marketing consultant and Founder of Winning Edge Digital. Greg specializes in building and flipping websites for profit and offers free Content Marketing and SEO information at his personal blog,

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