The Psychology of Viral Content

Considering that two of the most recent internet sensations involved a pair of white sneakers and a Wookie mask, it’s easy to write off viral content as pure luck. Some marketers might argue that no one can predict content’s viral potential.

However, these individuals are the same people repeatedly asking their marketing teams to “break the internet,” and with more than 75 percent of both B2B and B2C marketers expecting to produce more content this year, it’s an understatement to say there’s a ton of content out there. Most of it will likely languish in obscurity, but a few pieces will take off—even without the help of a Kardashian.

Consider this blog post from that reimagines superheroes with the help of Photoshop. Designers replaced bulging biceps and tiny waists from comic books icons in an effort to highlight more realistic body types. When paired with the originals, the stark contrast between the two images presents a powerful message about body issues through a highly-relatable medium. The result? Nearly 1,300 press mentions and more than 100,000 social shares.

My creative colleagues at Fractl wondered what this kind of mass syndication looks like when it hits the web. To get a better visual, we analyzed the unique URL IP addresses for each placement of the project over a nine-day period. In a little over a week, the campaign was covered by publishers in 20 U.S. states and 25 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, France, Italy, and Korea.

Check out the map below to see how the viral momentum built up over time:

mapping viral content

There’s no denying the project was successful from an engagement perspective, but what’s interesting is that the visual emphasizes how viral content transcends cultural barriers and industries. Although this campaign was created for a California-based organization that provides resources to individuals struggling with eating disorders, the rapid increase in pickups and social shares indicates that the content reached well beyond its targeted audience.

In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, brothers Chip and Dan Heath offer six components they believe elevate an idea from good to great. Viral content should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story-generating (or SUCCESs).

In other words, they believe there’s a method to the madness. And when applied to the superhero project, the theory holds true. The campaign was simple because it relied solely on visuals; the results were unexpected because the superheroes were still identifiable in an altered state; the images were concrete because they painted the same mental picture for anyone who looked at the project; the campaign was credible by featuring stats from the CDC; and the content was highly emotional because it connected superheroes to a much larger conversation about body image.

As for story, the post works on two different levels. On one end, it includes pop culture references that appeal to a niche group of comic book fans. On the other end, these images spark a universal discussion about insecurities. Whether or not someone agrees with the story doesn’t matter–there are arguments to be made for both sides, and the best ideas should reveal more than one story.

Keep in mind, though, that an entire research discipline is being dedicated to viral content, so there are additional explanations out there. In her study on the similarities of YouTube sensations, Limor Shifman argues that viral videos typically feature ordinary people, flawed masculinity, humor, simplicity, repetitiveness, and “whimsical content” (or the absence of a concrete theme). Other research suggests that virality is the result of popularity that originates in homogenous online communities rather than the the internet at large.

However, most theories tend to focus on one key ingredient. Let’s take a look at the work of Jonah Berger, a notable researcher in the field. As a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Berger has devoted more than 15 years to studying how social influence impacts our behaviors and what external factors drive products and ideas to catch on. In one of his earliest studies, he looked at nearly 7,000 New York Times articles to get a better understanding of what elements encourage virality. His results indicated that highly shared content is typically useful, surprising, and positive, but above all, highly emotional.

Notice anything Chip, Dan, and Jonah would agree on? An emotional connection is essential in order to drive shares, and one of the biggest goals for marketers today is to help brands create messages that people want to share. The success of the superhero campaign illustrates how content can earn more shares if it evokes responses like interest and surprise.

There are many factors that influence what someone shares online. A pop culture hook like a Star Wars mask helps, and a contagious catchphrase like “Damn, Daniel!” can’t hurt. But the superhero example goes to show that viral content is about more than just getting lucky.

Image by Getty