I don’t know anybody working in communications who doesn’t frequently ponder what magical, mythical, elusive characteristics make some content “go viral.” It’s kittens, right? But kittens alone can’t deliver. Just think of all the gazillions of adorable kitten videos that don’t get millions of views or shares or likes.

Whether it’s political messages, videos, or memes, or ideas that spread like wildfire via word of mouth, some things catch on while others don’t. So, is it just luck? Humor? Pulling at our heartstrings? A good story?

Is there a calculus for contagiousness?

These are exactly the questions Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger has spent the last decade trying to answer (he’s a disciple of Chip Heath of Made to Stick fame). Berger studies why people share some things rather than others—a.k.a. the psychology of social transmission.

Turns out there is a science to it. Berger and his team have analyzed thousands of pieces of online content and tens of thousands of products and brands in an attempt to understand why some things make the most-emailed list or get talked about.

In his book and on his blog, Berger has boiled the findings down to Six Principles of Contagiousness (luck and timing—and kittens—still can’t hurt either)!

Six Principles of Contagiousness

Social Currency: People want status & to be in-the-know. Give them cool stuff to share (bragging rights, remarkable tidbits, secrets & insider info).
Triggers: Top of mind = tip of tongue. Link your idea to regular, ubiquitous cues (breakfast, Mondays, windows).
Emotion: Activating emotions = sharing. Surprise, awe, humor, triumph, joy, anger & fear. But not sadness, guilt, or contentedness—they’re deactivating.
Public: We imitate what we see. Play up recognizable traits (perhaps a mustache).
Practical Value: We get points for passing along useful knowledge (how to save time & money, stay healthy, deal with tantrums).
Stories: People don’t share data, we tell stories. Provide a story worth retelling.

Berger makes clear, “no one can guarantee 10 million unique views.” But, his research suggests that “by understanding the science of virality, you can increase the likelihood that your content will be shared.” He also reminds us that contagious content doesn’t necessarily always incorporate all six characteristics, but hitting as many as you can will improve your average.

To keep track as you go forth crafting contagious content, the Six Principles spell S.T.E.P.P.S.—as in, the step(p)s you can take to get your ideas to catch on.


P.S. Combine these tips with Resource Media’s pointers on using compelling visuals and you’ll be unstoppable—see the recent visual storytelling cheat sheet.


November 1, 2013