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Getting Your Content to Go Viral

Published By Janet Gershen-Siegel at October 27th, 2017

It’s kind of the Holy Grail, isn’t it; to get your small business’s content to go viral?

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

An Example

Here is an example of a modestly viral piece of content. For anyone who didn’t 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. Neither of them intended for the image to be used as a punchline during the 2016 election.

Some Characteristics of Viral Content

Viral content does have a few quantifiable characteristics.

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.

Strong emotions tend to fall into one of these categories:

  • Anger (petitions capitalize on this)
  • Outrage (animal rescue organizations use this all the time)
  • Pity (just Google ‘Save the Children’)
  • Adoration (the ‘cuteness’ response)
  • Shock/Horror (this is related to anger and outrage but it’s more unexpected)
  • Awe (NASA plays off this all the time)
  • Interest (but it should be a high level of interest in the subject matter)
  • Humor (it’s everywhere)

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll share your TPS reports (no matter how wonderful they are) without 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.


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.

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.

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.

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 tips:

  • You must use an image, every single time.
  • 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.
  • Be patient! Your content might never go viral. That doesn’t mean it’s bad content at all.

Leeeroy Jenkins!

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