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How Do I Make It Viral?

September 12, 2014

In this era of technology, making something “viral” has become a way of measuring Internet success. The faster and wider content (be it a photo, video, piece of information, article. etc.) circulates around the Internet, the more “value” it has in the view of the global community. I say “value” in quotation marks because let’s face it, that value can hold a lot of different meanings, some of which serves the sole purpose of temporary entertainment (insert Rebecca Black joke).

Unfortunately, there is no way to control whether your content will go viral, and therefore no secret solution this blog post will unveil. Things that have gone viral are often inexplicable, and depend on a large series of factors outside the realm of our control. However, there are ways in which you can increase the chances of your content going viral. This can mean anything from reaching global visibility, to increasing general interest in the content, to simply increasing circulation within the niche of a target audience. So if you’re interested in learning how to tip the scale in your favor, read on.

Emotional Appeal

Emotional appeal is possibly the most important factor because people are more likely to share content they feel an emotional connection toward. This isn’t to say that viewers must be duped with calculated emotional gibberish, but that the same content can have more of an effect by simply appealing to emotional sensibilities a little more. In other words, the stronger the emotion the content triggers, the more it’ll spread, not only because we enjoy feeling things, but because when something evokes an emotion in us we want to share that experience with others.

So what steps can you take to make your content more relatable and emotionally appealing? First off, the content has to be about something people care about. If nothing is to be gained from it, no emotions will come in play. This part is mostly on you, so make it count! Second, it helps to stimulate thoughts in the viewer by bringing an unusual or personal perspective to a topic, or introducing new information. Third, language is crucial. Casual language makes the content more approachable, inclusive and personal, and the more people feel like “insiders” the more they are likely to care about the content and share it. However, layman’s language isn’t the solution every time; if you’re trying to reach a more formal audience, they will respond more to polished vocabulary. Simply adjust your approach to your audience. Finally, emotional interest can also be affected by content length, and how fast the emotional reward is. In other words, in an era of instant gratification, we like to feel something near the beginning of the content rather than wait until the end.

It has also been found that content that instigates positive emotions (like humor, inspiration, awe, joy, curiosity and surprise) tends to spread more than content that generates negative emotions (although anger, anxiety and fear have also proven to increase share-ability). That explains how the recent ALS ice bucket challenge became an international trend in a matter of days. Pouring buckets of ice water over one’s head to raise awareness appealed to emotions through humor and hope, and created a sense of camaraderie through the arguably shared interest in the cause.


Timing is key when releasing a piece of content. Research your target audience and find out in what time zone and during what months/days/hours they are most likely to be surfing the web. The more people who are active on the Internet when you release your content, the more likely it is to be passed around from that point on. Generally speaking, weekdays are better than weekends, and both 9am and 12pm EST are peak hours. It makes sense – at 9am, East Coast workers are arriving at the office and scrolling through the Internet to delay the start of the day. At noon, West Coasters do the same (while East Coasters are on lunch break scrolling through again). Rush hour on either time zone is no good, because most people can’t use devices when travelling to or from work.

Timing can also mean planning around events. If an event relevant to your content is coming up, release the content then – while interest in the topic is peaking and circulation is more likely. For example, lots of illustrations, memes and infographics related to Breaking Bad went viral during the end of the series because the show was generating so much interest in a large and widespread audience. Had these pieces been released between seasons, over a year after, or during the earlier seasons, the amount of shares would have been significantly lower, because the content wouldn’t have been as relevant and trending.

Infographic by John LaRue depicting the wardrobe color of main characters in the TV show Breaking Bad.


Content varies a lot from medium to medium and from piece to piece, so it’s difficult to give universal advice. However, the more useful the content, the more likely people are to care about it. It is helpful to research what matters to your audience and use what you find to shape your content. This can be as straightforward as information, tricks or the news, or as open-ended as general advice, inspiration or guidance.

If your content is informative, finish it off with a section telling people what the next steps are, i.e. how to apply it to their lives or how to take action and make a difference. This may seem pretty obvious, but a lot of articles, videos and infographics fall short by forgetting this crucial last step, which in turn hinders the spread and implementation of the message.

People are also often drawn to content that is relevant to their own lives. For that same reason, they are more likely to share things that are about themselves; especially if sharing said things helps them make a statement about who they are. A lot of what is shared has less to do with the content and more to do with the viewer’s image. So content that carries a certain sense of social currency is more likely to be passed on. Going back to the ALS ice bucket challenge, a key point in the success of the trend was the fact that it boosted its participants’ image, by advertising the act as compassionate and empathetic to the cause. The charitable aspect of the challenge turned a dare into a form of selfless donation, which in turn, perhaps subconsciously, turned into a form of social currency.


Good design increases the chances of something going viral. And this doesn’t merely include aesthetics, but also the ease of use, readability and interactivity. The more the visual and navigational obstacles (even the slightest inconvenience), the more people won’t follow-through with the content. So consider every visual detail – from the location of elements, to hierarchy, to contrast – and ensure that all elements included (colors, typefaces, photos, etc.) are relevant and reflect the tone and emotions your content is trying to evoke.

That being said, keep in mind that bad design can prevent something from going viral, but good design doesn’t guarantee it. It’s an essential piece in the bigger picture, but one that doesn’t stand on its own and requires strong content to back it up.

Digital Packaging

Create a digital package for your content that evokes emotion and curiosity, and is relatable. Use an intriguing thumbnail and headline, something that reveals a slither of the content with promise of more to come. Going back to language, it helps to make the headline active and personal. Take the title of this article, for example. By choosing to ask “How Do I Make it Viral?” rather than “Steps to Making Content Viral,” the language sets a more inclusive and inviting tone, and reads more as an intimate conversation than a formal article, one that might intrigue more people than the formal headline would.

There is another, even easier, way to package content to ensure you will get more views, but I personally urge you not to use it. I’m talking about Buzzfeed’s infamously misleading, overhyped and generally pointless headlines. You know the type, the article titled: “Top 23 Places To Go Before You Die. Couldn’t Believe #14.” Yes, they get a lot of views. Yes, they make you curious about #14. But they disappoint viewers with content that can’t possibly reach the hype of the headline, and give their publishers a cheapened reputation on the long run. So if you’re having a laugh and you want to put something silly out there, by all means use this technique – it works like gold. But if you’re publishing something you’d like to have taken seriously, or you’d like to make the Internet a slightly better place, I’d advise you to avoid over-using these already over-used tricks.

Put It Out There

So you’ve got your content…now what? The chances that someone influential will happen to stumble upon it are low. Take it upon yourself to use all relevant social media platforms to release your content across the web. This means doing research and reaching out to people, blogs, forums, and all kinds of platforms. For example, if you made a video, don’t limit yourself to YouTube; upload it to Vimeo as well, and every other video-sharing program out there.

Putting it out there also requires going to the source and adding “share” and “like” buttons to your content. Omitting these buttons could seriously hinder the chances of your piece being spread, as the more effort it requires to share something, the less people are likely to follow through with it.

The last ingredient towards having your content go viral is patience. Though we live in an era of instant gratification, not everything happens immediately. Viral hits don’t all happen over night. Some take months to gain visibility, and others might build up traffic slowly and continuously, rather than all at once. So don’t beat yourself down if you haven’t reached instant Internet fame. Good things come to those who wait.

If your content hits more or all of the above points, you’ve got a good chance of having it get shared. And the more it gets shared, the more others are likely to share it, and so on and so forth. But remember that some things are out of our control, and even if your content is well worded, packaged, designed and timed, that doesn’t mean it’ll get more views than a sharkcat riding a roomba.