Apr 04, 2016 / by Jim Dougherty

If you’re like me, you probably greet articles about content virality with a healthy dose of skepticism. Of course anyone writing content or posting on social media hopes for the largest possible distribution, but the articles that purport to tell you how to make content go viral are oftentimes less useful than they intend to be.

One of the most prolific researchers on the topic of virality and content perpetuation is Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger, author of “Contagious: How Things Catch On.” One of the great aspects of Berger’s work is that even the most counter-intuitive conclusions that he proposes are supported by sound research (examples of his counter-intuitive findings being assertions that offline word-of-mouth is far more prevalent than online word-of-mouth, or that Cheerios is discussed more frequently than Disneyland).

For me, Berger’s research is far more actionable and thoughtful than 99 percent of the stuff that’s been written about viral content, so I wanted to find out who else is researching virality and what we can learn from their insight.

What I want to do with this post is to explore what research has been done that can help content marketers and communication professionals better understand how content goes viral. I’m not sure that it’s all explicitly actionable, but I think a lot of these insights give a better sense of what viral content looks like and how people act on it than is usually shared.

1. Viral Content Has a Distinctive (Extended) Distribution

In 2013, Microsoft demonstrated a research tool called ViralSearch that scoured a year of tweets and mapped out shared links to determine what virality looks like.

As shown in the video embedded below, a typical content distribution starts with a large push and may end after one smaller perpetuation. Viral content is perpetuated over multiple generations after the initial push.

The video makes the scale of this model much clearer, but it makes some intuitive sense. It’s why even at a smaller scale, social sharing on my Cision posts oftentimes are either feast or famine.


ViralSearch : Identifying & Visualizing Viral Content Video of the Week: What does it mean for online content to “go viral”? An analysis of almost a billion information cascades on Twitter news, videos, and photos has produced the first quantitative notion of whether something has indeed gone viral, thereby enabling further research into topic experts, trending topics, and viral-incident metrics.

Posted by Microsoft Research on Friday, March 8, 2013

2. Viral Content Is Shared at the Point of Consumption

Art Zeidman, former President of Unruly and Pixability, identifies a very important feature of viral content: viral content is shared immediately after consumption. This may be an intuitive finding but one that has strong implications about the immediate impressions of a piece of content. Specifically, if content doesn’t make an immediate impression with a consumer they are highly unlikely to give it a second thought much less share it.

So how do we make a great first impression with content?

3. Viral Content Elicits “High Arousal”

This is where Berger’s research has a lot to contribute to our understanding of viral content. He focuses on “arousal” – the specific emotions and feelings that content evokes in the consumer.

Berger points out that we are more likely to share content that makes us happy than sad. We tend to share positive things more often than negative. Things that are amusing more often than things that make us angry.

A case study published in Harvard Business Review of Purina Puppy Chow’s viral “Puppyhood” video (embedded below) reinforces this finding. The feelings that surveyed viewers said that they experienced most often were warmth, happiness, hilarity and surprise: each in greater frequency than any negative feeling.



So, we want our content to positively arouse the consumer, but Berger brings up another aspect of content sharing that is very important as well: we share things that make us look good. We have three to five distinct peer groups on Facebook (plus oftentimes our mom), and we consider how the content that we post will be received by the people we are connected with online. Berger terms this phenomenon “self-enhancement.”

4. Viral Content Is Received More Favorably


Of course without arousal virality doesn’t happen, but Nelson-Field identifies another benefit to viral sharing: it increases the receptiveness of the reader.

Her research indicates that people who consume shared content are 15 percent more likely to enjoy it than if they simply discovered it on their own. So a good first impression of your content may cause self-perpetuation of sharing behavior.

5. Virality May Be Dependent Upon the Product and Medium

Researchers Christian Sciiuize, Lisa Sciiöler, & Bernd Skiera (2014) demonstrated that reaction to viral advertising may vary depending upon the product and the medium used.

Classifying products as either utilitarian (products necessary for actual need and function) or hedonic (driven by our desire for fun, entertainment and satisfaction), these researchers found that for hedonic purchases, content passed along by friends may be more effective than traditional advertising to elicit a positive response. However, for utilitarian purchases socially-transmitted content is as effective as unsolicited or incentivized advertising to elicit a positive response.

In other words, the more superfluous the product the more helpful social-transmission may be to make consumers receptive to your messaging.

6. Virality Is Meritocraticviral-faces

Zeidman shares that viral content isn’t dependent upon big budgets for its success. He says:

“There is really no great barrier to entry. One of the great things about social video is it’s a medium that’s completely devoid of waste”

Although money is hardly a disadvantage, there are plenty of examples of viral content that haven’t cost a lot of money.


Hopefully this post gives you an idea of why people respond favorably to and share content.

Berger points out that the bandwidth to consume content remains more or less constant, so the likelihood for virality remains pretty low. In fact, Zeidman identifies a 1 percent share rate as a threshold for success.

If you take anything away from this, hopefully it is that you can take a few small actions with your content to increase the likelihood that people will respond favorably to your content. Also, you should probably share this post on Facebook. I’m sure everyone you know will love it.

Read our Insider's Social Media Guide and learn how to amplify your earned media with a solid social media strategy. 


Cited in this post:

Berger, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2014), The Science of Sharing and the Sharing of Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 13642 – 13649.

Berger, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2012). What Makes Online Content Viral?. Journal Of Marketing Research (JMR), 49(2), 192-205. doi:10.1509/jmr.10.0353

Botha, E., & Reyneke, M. (2013). To share or not to share: the role of content and emotion in viral marketing. Journal Of Public Affairs (14723891), 13(2), 160-171. doi:10.1002/pa.1471

McNeal, M. (2012). The Secret to Viral Success. Marketing Research, 24(4), 10-15.

Porter, L., & Golan, G. J. (2006). From Subservient Chickens to Brawny Men: A Comparison of Viral Advertising to Television Advertising. Journal Of Interactive Advertising, 6(2), 30-38.

Schulze, C., Schöler, L., & Skiera, B. (2014). Not All Fun and Games: Viral Marketing for Utilitarian Products. Journal Of Marketing, 78(1), 1-19.

Why Some Videos Go Viral. (2015). Harvard Business Review, 93(9), 34-35.

Most Recent Posts

Cision Blogs Topics

  • Communications Best Practices

    Get the latest updates on PR, communications and marketing best practices.

  • Cision Product News

    Keep up with everything Cision. Check here for the most current product news.

  • Executive Insights

    Thought leadership and communications strategy for the C-suite written by the C-suite.

  • Media Blog

    A blog for and about the media featuring trends, tips, tools, media moves and more.

About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.