As you create a product, service, or piece of content that you want to go viral, carefully consider why someone would share it.
Jonah Berger, a professor at Wharton, conducted rigorous research to figure out why people share. Here are the six reasons he found (with examples of each):
1. Social currency: “We share things that make us look good.”
We all seek social approval. It’s human nature. So we share things that we think will boost others’ perception of us.
Example: When the founder of SmartBargains.com launched a new site, Rue La La, he made it invitation-only. It sold the same products as Smart Bargains. But because consumers now felt like insiders—a badge of social currency—they bought a lot more.
2. Triggers: “Top of mind, tip of tongue.”
We share and talk about things we come across. Which is why people discuss things they see regularly (like Cheerios) more than things that are less visible in their everyday lives (like Disney World).
Example: The most inescapable song of 2011, Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” peaked in daily searches every Friday after it came out.
3. Emotion: “When we care, we share.”
We share things that make us emotional. Things that elicit high-arousal positive emotions (awe, excitement, and amusement) and negative emotions (anger and anxiety).
Examples: Basically, everything on Upworthy.
4. Public visibility: “Built to show, built to grow.”
We imitate things we see. We’ll go to the food truck with the long line and sign up for the email service we see others using (AOL, then Hotmail, then Gmail).
Example: The Apple logo is upside down on a closed MacBook. But it’s right side up when the MacBook is open—say, at a coffee shop where others are working nearby. That’s solid public branding.
5. Practical value: “News you can use.”
We share useful information. Passing along helpful tips, tutorials, guidance, etc., strengthens social bonds.
Examples: #lifehacks viral videos on TikTok, Brené Brown TED Talks, Ads via Facebook.
6. Stories: “Information travels under the guise of idle chatter.”
Berger explains that “people don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives.” Which is why Aesop didn’t just say the words, “Don’t give up.” Instead, he told a story about a slow-yet-persevering tortoise who ended up winning a race.
Example: Unboxing videos are a type of story. As psychologist Pamela Rutledge puts it, each is “a mini-three act play with an exposition (presenting the box), rising action and conflict (what is it? can I get the box open? will I like it?) and resolution or denouement (showing what’s in the box).”