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Getting Your Content to Go Viral

Janet Gershen-Siegel
October 27, 2017
Getting Your Content to Go Viral Credit Suite

Getting Your Content to Go Viral – It’s Not Impossible

It’s kind of the Holy Grail, isn’t it; to get your small business’s content to go viral? Getting your content to go viral seems like a great idea. But can you actually do it?

Virality is kind of an odd thing, though. We can see it and we can sort of explain it. But many of us have trouble really defining it and getting it to happen organically. It’s a lot like trying to capture lightning in a bottle.

Getting Your Content to Go Viral: An Example

Here is an example of a modestly viral piece of content. For anyone who did not click through, the image is often referred to as “Old-Fashioned Selfie” or “Selfie with Old Phone”, and it is two women posing for a selfie, but they are looking and smiling at an old corded telephone. In the interests of full disclosure, I actually know the woman on the left and I have a passing Facebook acquaintance with the woman on the right.

A Google image search for that picture turns up thousands of hits. The image has been used as a meme and as a punchline for all sorts of captions, including political ones.

When the two subjects of the photograph had their picture taken, neither of them thought the image was more than just a joke. And neither of them meant for the image to be used as a punchline during the 2016 election.

Getting Your Content to Go Viral: Some Characteristics of Viral Content

Viral content does have a few quantifiable characteristics. So as you consider getting your content to go viral, think about these details.

Getting Your Content to Go Viral: Strong Emotional Punch or Pull

Viral content tends to evoke strong emotions. We are all bombarded all day, every day, with content. We simply cannot take it all in. Hence we tend to share with others. It’s not just because we like what we’ve seen, heard, or read. It’s also because we know, even if it’s just subconsciously, that others might miss out. Plus we also might feel we get some social cachet from sharing the funny, hip content.

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Getting Your Content to Go Viral: It’s All About the Emotions

Strong emotions tend to fall into one of these categories.


Have you ever seen something online which got you angry? Petitions capitalize on this every day of the week. And in fact, the trigger for your anger does not even have to be online. Hence if someone circulates a petition to get Coca-Cola to make their soda with sugar instead of corn syrup, you just might be tempted to sign.

That is, if you get angry about such things.


This one is kind of related to anger although it is not quite the exact same thing. For any time you catch yourself bellowing, “I cannot believe they…”, you are more likely to be experiencing outrage than just simple anger.

How dare they use dogs for fighting! Yes, you guessed right. Animal rescue organizations use one this all the time.Content Virality Credit Suite


Have you ever felt an ad or a website or a meme pull on your heartstrings? You likely have, at least one time. And probably way more times than that. If you’ve ever said, “Oh, the poor…” because of something you saw or read online, then you were experiencing online pity.

To find viral pity online, it’s easy. Just Google ‘Save the Children’.


This is also known as the ‘cuteness’ response. Puppies! Kittens! Babies! Otters! Baby deer! When the adorableness factor is off the charts, people love to share. And enough sharing creates virality. If you’ve ever said, “Awwww….” about anything online, then you were experiencing adoration.


This one is slightly different. It is related to anger and outrage but it’s more unexpected. Maybe we come across some sort of series of images – perhaps a slideshow – and the ending takes you by surprise. And not necessarily in a good way. You might have experienced shock and/or horror.

Here’s one easy way to find shock and/or horror. Just Google ‘creepypasta’.


People just love sharing awe-inspiring, neat stuff. NASA plays off this all the time. This is also, often, the kind of material where people get some social cachet out of sharing.


Of course people enjoy sharing interesting stuff. But it should be a high level of interest in the subject matter. Obscure factoids may or may not fly. So this one is kind of a balancing act. It needs to be obscure enough to be interesting, but also well-known enough to not be dismissed immediately.

People online might not care about the average rainfall in Ethiopia – unless there’s a drought.


This one is obvious, and it is everywhere.

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll share your TPS reports (no matter how wonderful they are) with anyone but your boss and your colleagues. But that video of the baby tiger at the zoo yawning? You’re a lot more likely to share that one.

In our example, of course the evoked emotion is humor.

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Getting Your Content to Go Viral: Relatability

The women in our example seem down to earth. The woman on the right is an actress, but she doesn’t look unapproachable. She doesn’t feel like someone who would sneer at you from a limousine. Plus, for everyone over a certain age, the image works – we remember those phones.

And younger generations have seen these phones, possibly at a grandparent’s home or even at an office. Also, while the image is a good one, it’s far from perfect. People in the background are cut off. The back has glare. This lends to an impression that the photo was not really staged, and anyone could have taken it. The photographer did not have to be a professional in order to get the shot.

Getting Your Content to Go Viral: Visual Clarity and Appeal

Although the woman on the right is relatable, there’s also no denying that she’s attractive (they both are). The image isn’t fuzzy and the women are wearing makeup and their hair is neat, etc. Small details like that can make a difference when it comes to whether someone will share a piece of online content.

Getting Your Content to Go Viral: You ‘Get it’ Fast

We all read and process online content very quickly these days. Marketers often have only a few seconds to get someone to stop and, hopefully, read the entirety of their content. Attention is pulled in a thousand different directions, and our attention spans are becoming ever shorter.

Therefore, content has got to make its point really rapidly. The example image does so because the joke is so obvious. No one has to explain it, even to people who have never seen such a style of telephone before.

This is one of the reasons why memes are so popular these days and why you see so many similar ones. How many times in the past week did you see Condescending Wonka, the Ridiculously Photogenic Man (or anyone, really), the Drunk Baby, Pun Husky, the Overly Attached Girlfriend, or the Fry meme? And how many times did you read captions similar to:

  • You keep using that word. I don’t think you know what it means.
  • New phone; who dis?
  • I’m not saying it was aliens, but …
  • Bye, Felicia!
  • Cash me outside, how ‘bout dat?

All of these images and phrases are so well-known that they are practically a kind of cultural currency.

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Getting Your Content to Go Viral: What About Your Content?

There are, of course, no guarantees. And you should manage your expectations on virality – if you normally get twenty people to like what you post, and then you get 2,000, that’s a great uptick. Don’t knock it; we can’t all be George Takei.


Here are a few quick tips.

You must use an image, every single time. But bad, blurry images are only going to hurt you. So use clear images, which can mean using a real camera and not a phone.

Evoke a strong emotion and be willing to back that up. If you evoke anger, then own it. This doesn’t mean you need to be calling for torches and pitchforks, but if you dial it back and later on tell everyone you were only kidding, you’ll lose online social credibility.

Keep your content relatable, even if it’s just to your target audience. If you sell tractors, then your content should be something which people who buy and use tractors can relate to. Target that fraction of the population.

Keep it really simple and obvious.

Manage your expectations.

Getting Your Content to Go Viral: Takeaways

Be patient! Your content might never go viral. That doesn’t mean it’s bad content at all.

Leeeroy Jenkins!

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