Whether it’s a cat playing the piano, an unfortunate reporter taking a tumble from her grape-stomping tub, or a stirring speech by a public figure, the Internet has an enduring love affair with viral content. The strange alchemy of technology and emotion that transforms a piece of media from just another image, video, song or document into something that simply must be shared with simply everyone is made possible by today’s interconnected world. A dictator’s crackdown, a celebrity meltdown, or an impossible touchdown can spawn videos and image macros that are plastered across the world’s Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts before you can say “Holy Meme, Batman!”
But what does it take, exactly, for content to become contagious? Marketing professor Jonah Berger has narrowed it down in his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On. According to Berger, the first step to any successful viral venture is emotion. We might be living in an electronic world, but just like our unplugged predecessors, we respond most powerfully to stimuli that make us feel things deeply. Like it or not, the human animal is driven by emotion, and if your content fails to evoke a strong feeling—happiness, surprise, amusement, rage, etc.—then its chances of going viral are next to nil.
Beyond simple emotional engagement, Berger identifies five other key elements necessary to take your content to the next level of shareability: social currency, triggers, public observability, practical value, and storytelling. When these factors combine, we are driven to meet our deep-set needs to share a narrative, appear intelligent (or at least knowledgeable) by providing practical information, and gain social credibility with our peers by being seen to do so. Once this urge takes hold, a quick click on the “share” button or firing off a pithy tweet is the natural result.
You don’t need to be a psychologist to create quality, engaging content, but you do need a fundamental understanding of the humans who are taking it in. Just remember to make sure your site can handle the load once your next masterpiece catches on.
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