Monday Mornings with Madison

Making Content Contagious

Word Count:  1,520 

Estimated Read Time: 6  min.

In the medical world, a virus is an infective agent that cannot grow or reproduce apart from a living cell.   A virus invades living cells and uses their chemical machinery to keep itself alive and replicate.  Most viruses are harmful.  In the digital world, a virus is a piece of code that is capable of copying itself and typically has a detrimental effect.   But in the marketing world, when a piece of content such as a video, image or ad goes ‘viral’ – circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another – that is cause for celebration.  It is the most desired, but also most elusive, outcome for any marketing effort.

While many have tried creating content that goes viral, it is like baking the perfect soufflé, writing a hit song or painting a masterpiece.  Many try but most fall far short of the mark.  Yes, there are many videos that have gone viral, but that number is actually quite low in comparison to the amount of content that is created and posted daily.  There is a continually growing stream of digital activity flowing through cables and airwaves across the world.  Every minute, giant amounts of content are being generated from phones, websites and applications across the Internet.  And the unspoken competition for content to “go viral” is fierce.   What causes some pieces of content to go viral while so much other content is barely noticed?  While many speculate and guess, there is current marketing research that examines what makes online content go viral.  Just remember that what is true today may not necessarily be true next month and will likely not be true next year.

Rising Above the Noise

According to, as of June 30, 2017, there are 3,885,567,619 people on earth now able to access and use the Internet.  That is roughly 51.7% of the world’s population.  In North America, however, the percentage is much higher with 88% of the population using the Internet.   That’s a lot of people with access to a laptop, tablet or smart phone.  With little more than that, they are able to create content, and they are creating a lot of it.

Massive amounts of content is being created and uploaded to the Internet every minute.  Here are just a few stats, according to

  • YouTube users upload 48 hours of video every minute.
  • Facebook users share 684,478 pieces of content every sixty seconds.
  • Instagram users share 3,600 new photos each minute.
  • Tumblr sees 27,778 new posts published per minute.
  • Apple receives 47,000 App downloads every minute.
  • Twitter sends over 100,000 tweets per minute.
  • Email users send 204,166,667 messages per minute.
  • There are 347 blog posts published every minute (including this one).

These are sites many people around the world use — and will continue to use in the future – on a regular basis.  But most content is never seen by more than a few hundred to a few thousand viewers.  That’s the challenge.  What causes some content to be shared and viewed by millions while the vast majority are only viewed by a tiny audience?

This is a question many have pondered and discussed.  Most theories have been based on conjecture, deductive reasoning and anecdotal evidence.  Many companies have created funny videos and tried to engage the audience with humor.  Others have tried cute animated videos.  Still others have tried cute memes.  But, more recently, two grad students at the Wharton School tackled the same question scientifically.  Jonah Berger, while a student at Stanford University, wondered what made content at The Wall Street Journal rise to the top of the most read / shared list.  At the same time, Katherine Milkman wondered how the articles in the New York Times made it on the NYT’s “most e-mailed” list.  The two joined forces to study the question.

Milkman and Berger conducted a measurable experiment.  They built their own web crawler to study the content on the New York Times website for three months.  This came to over 7,000 articles and videos.  They were trying to understand not just which articles emerged as the most-shared, but why.  Not surprisingly, articles that made it to the front page of the NY Times were 20% more likely to be shared than average.  That made sense since it demonstrated the power of exposure that the NY Times has.  They viewed that kind of prominent placement as being equal to an advertisement.

Beyond placement, however, they found other variables that highly-shared content had in common.

  • Content that made people angry or upset had a 34% greater chance of being shared than average.
  • Content that was considered awe-inspiring had a 30% greater chance of being shared than average.
  • Content that contained practical information or was “useful” also had a 30% greater chance of being shared than average.
  • Content that inspired feelings of sadness, however, had a 13% below average chance of being shared.

This reinforces the theory that content that connects with strong emotions such as anger, inspiration, hopefulness, eagerness and excitement are much more likely to be shared whereas content that triggers a soft or negative emotion, such as sadness, depression or misery were much less likely to be shared.  This makes sense.

Based on their findings, Milkman and Berger also hypothesized three primary reasons that cause people to share online content.  Understanding why people share content also helps guide the content creation process.

  1. People who share content want to increase their status among others by offering useful or positive information.  They want to score points by appearing to be “in the know”.  They might share articles that have interesting facts or are amusing in some way.  Or they might share a competitor’s ad or article to show that they are on top of what the competition is doing.
  2. People who share content are trying to strengthen social bonds.  They are trying to reinforce a connection the way school children might share their cookies at lunch or their gum on the bus.  By sharing content, they are saying “Let me give you something that I think will be so useful to you so that you will feel our close bond.”
  3. People who share content want to equalize the emotional impact of the content they consume.  If they see something shocking or frightening, it is easier to normalize this information mentally by sharing it with others.

For this study, Milkman and Berger won the 2017 William F. O’Dell Award which honors the article that has made the most significant, long-term contribution to marketing theory, methodology and/or practice.

Of course, this study looked at a microcosm of high-quality content generated by one of the most  respected newspapers in the U.S.  And these articles have been held to a literary and journalistic  standard that is far more stringent than the content most people or businesses produce.  That said, the study does shed some scientific light on why content is shared and what typed of content goes “viral.”

Based on these insights, there are some tips for business owners, managers, marketers and salespeople who are trying to create content that connects, is shared and ultimately builds the business.

1.  Have a Plan

It is of no value to launch content marketing efforts and then stop them at some arbitrary point later when the results aren’t living up to the expectations.  Create a plan and adjust it as needed, but don’t just wing it.  Decide who will create the content and how often content will be created.  Decide where and how it will be disseminated.  Set goals.  Content marketing that is planned is more likely to at least achieve the desired goals, even if the goal is far short of going “viral.”  Content marketing that is handled on the fly, rather than as a planned effort, almost never goes “viral.”

2. Do Due Diligence / Investigate

Don’t fly blind.  Content marketing requires research.   Research the audience.  Research what topics are of interest to the targeted audience.  The better you understand the audience and their real concerns, the easier it is to hone in on content that has value or can pack emotional punch.  Prepare videos, memes, articles, blog posts or tweets that communicate:

  • Human Interest
  • Breaking News
  • Latest Trends
  • Useful Information
  • Inspirational Stories
  • Free Downloads
  • How To and DIY Information
  • Polls, Surveys and Feedback

3.  Write Powerful Headlines

As in so many things, the 80-20 Rule applies here too.  While only 20% will read an entire article or video, over 80% will read the entire headline.  If the headline packs a punch, then it leads the audience to consume more.  But people are responding less and less to articles that start with the “Top 8 Tips to….” Instead, they are looking for articles that give insight and show that the article has value.

4.  Infuse Emotion

Content that is meant to engage an audience should be filled with emotion.  If there is a problem, don’t just explain the problem.  Explain the pain and frustration caused by the problem.  Put it in human terms.  Let the reader/viewer appreciate just how much turmoil and angst was churned up by this problem.

5. Be Relevant

Putting content out there that is shocking, inspiring or angering might make it go viral… but if it doesn’t relate to a company’s business, then what’s the point?  The point of creating content that goes viral for a business is to generate more business, or at the very least, to increase brand awareness.  But if the content has absolutely no relationship to the business, the video might go viral but no one will remember who generated it.

For example, in 2016, one of the most shared videos was based on a story about a college student who had left a Kit Kat candy bar in his car.  Someone went into his car and stole it, leaving a note behind saying that he was sorry but saw the Kit Kat bar, was hungry and took it.  The guy took a picture of the note, which then got shared until someone at Hersheys, the manufacturer of Kit Kat, saw it.  They used the opportunity to send the guy whose Kit Kat bar was stolen over 6,000 Kit Kat bars and created a little video about the whole experience.  The video went viral.   While Hershey certainly didn’t plan for this (skipping step 1), the video followed steps two through five.  The video definitely generated emotion and was definitely relevant and memorable.

6.  Share with Social Media Influencers

Whether sharing content with a small group or the whole world, the hard part is getting people to share it.  Some who share have more influence than others.  Those with a lot of social media influence have a higher likelihood of having their content re-shared.  These Influencers are invaluable.  They are people who have a lot of “street cred” among the desired audience.  For example, for companies that are in the world of fashion, there is a great chance of having a photo or video of a new clothing line go viral if it is shared by a celebrity or the editor of a major fashion magazine, then if it is shared by 1000 people with little or no social media influence.   When it comes to sharing, all sharers are not equal.

7.  Add Visuals to Articles

It’s been said countless times that a picture paints a thousand words.  Articles that include relevant, engaging photos or graphics are much more likely to be shared.   Photos are eye-candy.  Pictures increase readership 80%!  That’s right.  It’s that simple.

Creating contagious content can be challenging.  But following these basic tips ensures that any content that is published at least has a fighting chance of getting seen, shared and followed more than content that doesn’t.

Quote of the Week

“The first lesson in constructing viral content is having the strength, courage, and self-confidence to get in touch with your own feelings, thinking about what profoundly affects you.” Ken Poirot


© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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