12 Viral Content Triggers

For a campaign to go truly viral, amazing content is often key. So, what kind of content works? What will make people want to pass something on? In my experience, you can put one word on it – “remarkable” – something worth remarking about.

The content should contain something that people want to tell others, something that sparks conversations, something to discuss. The content needs to build social value, tie people closer together or maybe even tear them apart a little.

Without great content, the campaign usually won’t spread. And if it doesn’t spread, there will not be any value created for the business behind it. Here are 12 different viral content triggers to try make use of.

Something funny
We like funny stuff. We like to be funny. And the easiest way is if we can free-ride on something that is funny. So, if we get the chance, we pass it on so that we are associated with that funniness just a little bit. Funny works, because we all love a good laugh. It is one of the best ways to connect with people. This is pretty funny.

Something spectacular
The best place to go to see something spectacular might be a circus. You can almost count on seeing something that seems impossible to do. Maybe it is this “mystery” that appeals to us, a wow-feeling. And if something “wows” us we want to share it, we want to talk about it, and we want others to experience it. Insane street soccer can count as pretty spectacular, even though it is faked.

Something sexy
Well, sex sells. There’s no denying it. And believe it or not, it is primarily men who are on the viewing end of this and women that are featured in the content. But, cases of the contrary also exist.

Maybe it is something very ingrained in the male psyche, something evolutionary, that makes men want to see naked women. To be very brief and clear, our sex drive.

I believe the sharing might actually often be smaller for something sexy than for other viral triggers. But the amount of views or interactions it gets once posted somewhere is higher, so the actual spread is still very high. Marina’s “Hot for words” could be an example of something that plays on sexiness to create interest and spread.

Something taboo
Yes, something that is taboo often teases us to pass it on. It is the forbidden fruit that we cannot taste. But, this trigger doesn’t work quite like something that is funny or spectacular. The funnier, the more viral. The more spectacular, the more viral. The more taboo, the more viral, up to a point! If it is a bit taboo, you can send it to your friends, but maybe not to your mom and dad. If it is very taboo, you only send it to your very closest friends. And if it is too taboo, you can’t send it to anyone, and there is no chance it will be viral. Diesel did a video that can illustrate this point quite well, but only if you are over 18!

A secret
Something secret is in essence “scarce information” and we all know what scarcity does to us. It tells us something has value. And if something has value, we like to pass it on. But, just as with the taboo trigger, if something is too secret, we can’t pass it on to everyone we know. If it is too secret, we need to keep it secret to keep the value, so we can’t pass it on. Too secret, and it will not be viral at all. Sorry, but I can’t tell you this one! 😉

Something personal
If there is something we like to hear it is our own name. And if something is personal, targeted just to us, we tend to like it. With new digital tools, it is also very easy to create personalized campaigns. The kind that wows us just a bit, even though it can be very easy to integrate someone’s name in a little flash movie. When we are given the chance to give someone else this experience, we like to do it. So, personal campaign material has a good chance to spread if well done. This is a brilliant example from the marketing of TV series Dexter, highly personalised to me.

A “revenge”
I don’t mean revenge in the traditional sense. It would not go viral, just back and forth between two persons. I mean if you are maybe “fooled” by someone, realize your gullibility and then get the chance to get back. But, you get back on someone else. It wouldn’t work with the one who fooled you since they are already aware of the prank. You need to “get back” at someone else, or several others. Somehow, fooling someone else makes you get over that you got fooled yourself in the first place. It restores your self image. Sure, you got fooled, but you also fooled some others. If you’re a guy, you might feel fooled by this one!

Something controversial
There are several themes that we see over and over again in content that goes viral. Controversy is one of them. If you can build in some controversy, an issue where there is a “pro or con” or maybe something that even breaks the general consensus, you have a good chance to spark conversations and create something that goes viral. This is no doubt controversial to a lot of people!

A current event
Current events are great to tie your content to. It can be some event taking place, a national holiday, or a topic that is on the agenda in the news. The upside is that it can give the content a necessary positive momentum. The downside is of course that it is what it is – a current event. And with that the attention will usually taper out once the event is over. OfficeMax has at least made Elfyourself to a yearly recurring campaign. We’ll see what they come up with this year!

A cause
Causes circulating on the Internet is something we have gotten used to. Put simply, people want to be part of something greater than themselves, something that matters. It might be most relevant for organizations working for a better world, but businesses can also tap into this in for example CSR efforts. Causes like “Fight Animal Cruelty” attracts a lot of people.

Uncertainty
This is pretty similar to using “something controversial” in the sense that two different “camps” often appear, discussing the issue. But it feeds on uncertainty about something. Is it true or not? Is it possible? Can it be done? I think this one is affected to a certain extent by the Zeigarnik effect. Following tradition here, let’s grab a definition directly from wikipedia:

“The Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones”

We like to come to some kind of closure. We don’t like unfinished thoughts, and something that is uncertain creates an unfinished thought. It is kind of a cliffhanger. Until we have solved it and come to our own conclusion, we like to talk about it. And once two different camps appear, the discussion can rage for months. The Ronaldinho clip for Nike is a prime example.

Something new
It is always interesting to try new stuff, and being first with something creates social status. New things are often scarce, and scarcity makes it attractive. So, something that is new, that hasn’t been seen before, is often tried and often passed on. It is a quick way to let others know that you are “in the know”, the “go to”-guy.

Of course, something entirely new might be a bit hard to come up with. But, to be honest, getting the other triggers above right isn’t easy either. The good news is that you can combine the triggers. And there are other tools in your box! When the video Bad day at the office first spread, before Youtube even existed, video on the Internet was new.

If you want to learn more about viral marketing and contagious messages, here is a tip for a book I really like.


Kristofer Mencák is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

2 thoughts on “12 Viral Content Triggers”

  1. Pingback: Network Effects, Game Mechanics and Stickiness : Kristofer Mencák

  2. Pingback: Why “viral thinking” is important : Kristofer Mencák

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