The Science behind How to Create Content That Goes Viral

Joe Putnam
July 16, 2021
minute read

In last week’s post we talked about how the odds are against you when it comes to creating viral videos. Everyone wants their content to go viral, but not everyone’s will. In fact, yours probably won’t.

But if you really do want to create something that goes viral, there are ways to increase your chances.

Two people in particular have studied content, advertising, and ideas that go viral and have come up with repeatable principles. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll increase the chances your content goes viral.

Introducing Mark Hughes

The first person you need to know about is Mark Hughes. He’s a marketing genius and wrote a book titled Buzzmarketing: Get People to Talk about Your Stuff. If you buy and read one book after this post, this is the one.


So how genius is he?

He was the brains behind the marketing at that caused the company to get a $300 million acquisition offer from eBay only six months after being in business and helped them to grow from 0 to 8 million users in under three years. Not bad, right?

How did he do it?

The short version is that he used buzz marketing, i.e. viral marketing, principles to generate an insane amount of free press that turned into word-of-mouth marketing by paying to rename a town in Oregon from Halfway to

It wasn’t an easy feat to accomplish, but the result was a story that the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, the NBC’s Today show, and other media outlets all covered. The free press combined with the buzz it created from people talking about the story directly contributed to the company’s incredible growth.

That’s just one of many examples in Buzzmarketing about how Mark Hughes used viral principles to generate buzz.

Introducing Jonah Berger

The next marketer you need to know is Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business. He’s studied virality on the internet more than anyone else and wrote Contagious: Why Things Catch On to share what he’s learned. (Contagious is the other book you should pick up if you’re looking to boost your chances of creating viral content.)


More specifically, Professor Berger studied New York Times articles that make the paper’s Most Emailed List and identified six principles that explain why content gets shared. These principles are outlined in detail in his book

So How Do You Create Content That Goes Viral?

First and foremost, it’s either going to happen accidentally, or you need to work hard to plan for and create content that goes viral. Let me explain.

In the first scenario, sometimes content goes viral without your even trying. Someone who records a double rainbow and says, “What does it mean?” didn’t do so with the intention of getting 39 million views. It just happens.

This could happen to you at some point. You create a video or piece of marketing material, and it ends up going viral. This probably won’t happen, yet it could.

But what we really want to talk about is how to purposefully generate content that goes viral.

Poopourri, for example, purposefully created a viral video. It wasn’t an accident they’re commercial was viewed 27,247,428 times. They pulled the right levers to make sure it did. Go ahead and watch the video below now if you haven’t done so already.

Dollar Shave Club did the same. They made a video that was incredibly funny and was quite different than other video ads. The result? 14,774,036 views and a new company born in the process.

As you can see, these videos didn’t go viral accidentally. There was thought put into their production to boost the chances that they’d go viral. It’s never a guarantee, but planning for it and knowing the science behind virality definitely increases your chances.

The Science behind Viral Content

So what’s the science behind viral content? What’s the secret sauce that can increase your chances of going viral?

The answers are found within the books recommended earlier, but I’ll summarize some of the major points now.

#1: Give People Something to Talk about

The first principle you need to understand is to give people something to talk about. You need to give people something worth telling their friends. This becomes a kind of currency where someone talks about your product or business to seem like they’re in the know.

It’s the kind of thing where someone says, “Hey, have you heard about [enter news story or crazy advertisement here].” People talk about things that are going to impress their friends. Your job as a marketer is to give them something to talk about.

Let’s consider an example.

In Houston, there’s a furniture store called Gallery Furniture that ran a “Pigskin Promotion” offering customers a refund if they spent at least $6000 on furniture in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl and if the Seattle Seahawks won.

The Seahawks ended up winning and the owner had to pay out $7 million. Crazy, right? Well, it depends how you look at it.


On the one hand, the stunt cost the owner $7 million. On the other hand, which furniture store do you think the people of Houston couldn’t stop talking about? Gallery Furniture, that’s right. It’s an incredible story that had the city abuzz.

In the end, whether or not it was worth it depends on how much you would have spent on advertising otherwise and what the results would have been, but at least Gallery Furniture is now top of mind for nearly 100% of Houston residents.

The lesson: You’ve got to do something worth talking about in order to get your customers talking.

#2: Push One (or More) buzz buttons

We already covered this in the previous post on buzz marketing, so I’m not going to get into the details now. But for everyone that hasn’t read the first post, these are the six buttons of buzz:

  1. The taboo
  2. The unusual
  3. The outrageous
  4. The hilarious
  5. The remarkable
  6. The secrets (both kept and revealed)

If you push one (or more) of these buttons, you increase the chances that your content, ad, or whatever else will go viral.

#3: Advertise for Attention

Something else you can do is to advertise for attention and not just to share your message.

Essentially, this means you consider what you can do with your ads to give people something to talk about. Instead of doing the exact same thing your competitors are doing, you do something different. Ideally, you’ll push one of the six buzz buttons listed above in the process.

There’s an example of this in Buzzmarketing. Mr. Hughes refers to an ad campaign from the 1920’s for a company called Burma Shave. Instead of doing traditional ads, they placed sequential signs along a highway with parts of a message. It read like this:

Said Juliet
To Romeo
If You
Won’t Shave
Go Homeo
-Burma Shave

Pretty clever, eh? This also was done at a time when billboards didn’t clutter every mile of highways.

As you can imagine, Burma Shave got more mileage from these ads than from copying other businesses. Can’t you just picture people saying, “Hey, have you seen those Burma Shave ads yet?”

If you do the same thing as everyone else, nobody’s going to talk. If do something different, you’ll get people talking.

Dollar Shave Club provides another great example. Who else titles their video ads “Our Blades Are F****** Great”? I’m not advocating that brands curse just to get attention, but that kind of headline gets noticed.

So remember to not just advertise for the sake of advertising. Find a way to push the six buttons of buzz, and you’ll increase the chances that people will talk about your ads, multiplying the benefit for every ad dollar you spend.

#4: Use Triggers

In Contagious, Jonah Berger talks about the benefit of using triggers to get ideas to catch on. The example he gave was about a Kit Kat.

A new marketing manager was tasked with growing sales for Kit Kat. To do so, she ran ads that connected Kit Kat to coffee. Lots of people drink coffee, so the idea was that by connecting Kit Kat to something people already were doing, it would increase the chances that when people drank coffee they’d think of Kit Kat. And if they thought of Kit Kat, there was a better chance they’d break off a piece to eat with their coffee.

The result was sales went up by a third after a year, and the brand grew from being worth $300 million to $500 million. All from connecting Kit Kat to something people were already doing which triggered the idea to eat a Kit Kat bar when people were grabbing their coffee.

#5: Emotions

The last point in this list of the science behind how to create viral content has to do with emotions. In short, when you target the right emotions, there’s a better chance something will go viral.

This video of a goat being reunited with his donkey friend is a great example. No, it’s not crazy viral (yet) with 19,216 views, but it has had some level of virality.

It’s also extremely touching. So touching in fact, that it’s hard not to share it with people once you’ve seen it.

If you target the right emotions, then you increase the chances you content will go viral. What are those, you ask? They are:

  1. Awe
  2. Excitement
  3. Amusement
  4. Anger
  5. Anxiety

All five of these emotions make content more likely to go viral. On the flip side, you want to avoid the following:

  1. Contentment
  2. Sadness

Those emotions tend to be low arousal and get shared less.

Wrapping Up

In the end, the odds aren’t in your favor when it comes to creating viral content (something we wrote about here last week). But you can increase your odds if you play your cards right; you just need to know what those cards are.

The next time you attempt to create a viral piece of content or an ad that goes viral, come back to this post to brush up on the science of how to create content that goes viral. You may also want to pick up a copy of both Buzzmarketing and Contagious to learn even more about what generates buzz and causes content to catch on. We can’t guarantee your content will go viral, but we can guarantee that both of these books will increase your odds.

Note: None of the links in this post are affiliate links.

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Joe Putnam


Joseph Putnam is a freelance copy writer from Orange County, CA. He writes compelling blog posts and website content for businesses. Visit his website today if you need persuasive copy that turns traffic into leads and sales. He’s available to write content for blog posts, web pages, e-mail campaigns, and more.

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