Catching On: What Makes Something Spread and Go Viral on Social Media?

Will Trevor is the Faculty Program Director for Marketing at Excelsior College. The original post can be viewed on LinkedIn.

Virus Graffiti, Leake Street by Duncan C: (Creative Commons)

During a weekend in which I accepted a challenge on Facebook from a former work colleague to do push ups as part of the #22Kill Campaign, which aims to raise awareness for the number of veterans that take their lives every day because of PTSD. I also got nominated to post my top 10 hits from the Eighties by another Facebook friend, which thankfully seems less energetic.

And while I have readily accepted both, I am a little more confident in my ability to pick music, rather than complete the push ups.  Each of these challenges, however, require you to further nominate someone on each occasion, which spreads the activity further afield, seeming to expand exponentially.

But these challenges gave me pause to reflect on the nature of virality and also on some of the past and current thinking about what causes something to ‘catch on’ and spread.  Why did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the Chewbacca Mum spread so far, so quickly, and yet the millions of other YouTube videos and tweets posted on a daily basis barely get viewed more than once?

So why do some things go viral and others just fizzle out?

Aristotle’s Thoughts on Virality

One of the earliest thinkers to reflect on the nature of virality – although he would not have seen it that way – was the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.  In our communications courses here at Excelsior College, we teach our students the Modes of Persuasion or the principles of: ethos, pathos, and logos.  And while the idea of online content would have challenged Aristotle’s not-inconsiderable intellect, his ideas apply equally to a viral tweet, just as much as to the speech of a rhetorician, which is what he was talking about.  Does the content seem credible and right (ethos)? Does it speak to me emotionally (pathos)? And does it make sense (logos)?  You may wish to reflect upon why you shared the last thing you did to your friends on social media and your answer may chime with the thoughts of Aristotle, without you even knowing it.

Contagious: Jonah Berger & Malcolm Gladwell

Fast forward a few Millennia and more recent reflections upon the concept of virality come to us courtesy of Wharton Professor, Jonah Berger.  Berger outlined his views in an influential article in the Journal of Marketing Research, entitled, “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?” and his best-selling book, ‘Contagious’.  The latter is unashamedly a riposte to the 2000 blockbuster from Malcolm Gladwell, ‘The Tipping Point’, in which Gladwell presented his view that something spreads because of the actions of key actors, known as mavens, connectors, and sales people.  Berger, on the other hand, argues that Gladwell is too focused upon the messenger that he misses the important role of the message, which is something he seeks to redress in his book.

STEPPS: Berger’s 6 Principles

While Berger acknowledges his debt to Gladwell, he outlines his 6 principles of why things are shared and go viral under the acronym, STEPPS:

#1: Social Currency – you may have heard the saying that ‘we are what we share‘, and so the things that we share on social media become a form of currency that we can spend online.  Being able to share the antics of my dog, or a YouTube video of some Eighties band, enables me to partake in social media, whether I have simply shared existing content or created something new.

#2: Triggers – these are the things that prompt us to share something, whether it is in reaction to the latest speech by a politician or the fact that some event has happened that has caught our attention. Something that makes a topic ‘top of mind’, for me and my contacts, is something shareable online.

#3: Ease for Emotion: Something that Aristotle would agree with, we share the things that we care about.  So the challenge for me to do push ups in response to the daily trauma faced by war veterans, obviously resonated with me and I suspect it will be something that many of my friends and contacts will also feel some emotional connection with.

#4: Public – When we see someone else do something in public, then we feel vindicated in doing it too.  The fact that my former colleague is posting a daily video of himself doing push ups, makes it OK for me to do it too, whereas a unilateral decision to undertake the activity may have courted some risk of social embarrassment (although it still might).

#5: Practical Value – Am I sharing something because I feel that it will have value to you? Is it a video for an amazingly tasty, yet simple to make, recipe for a scrumptious dessert.  Or is it a brief review or endorsement for a local restaurant or the latest film, which may help my friends in finding somewhere to eat or in deciding which film they should go and see.

#6: Stories – Good marketing tells powerful stories, because they resonate more readily with an audience and it is the way we have been passing on information since the Dawn of Man. Our personal stories, whether reminiscences from days gone by or the post of someone overcoming adversity, are an incredibly effective way of transmitting a message in a readily accessible format.

So the #22 Kill campaign certainly fulfills many of the principles outlined by Berger: it is social currency, with some emotional investment, and friends get to view the unfolding story of my daily attempts to do some push-ups.  This campaign, however, also mimics the extraordinary success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years ago, which galvanized considerable support and brought wider awareness to what had previously been a little-known disease.

Whether you are attempting to write some killer content for a social marketing campaign or you are just making the conscious decision to share something to your Facebook friends, you may wish to pause and reflect on why you chose to help it spread.  Whether it is because of Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion or Berger’s 6 principles, virality is certainly less to do with chance and more to do with the nature of the message and our response to it.

Will Trevor is Faculty Program Director for Marketing at Excelsior College.

Picture Credit

Title Picture: Virus Graffiti, Leake Street by Duncan C: (Creative Commons)


Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of my employer.


William Trevor
About William Trevor 17 Articles
Will Trevor is the Faculty Program Director for Marketing in the School of Business and Technology, in which role he is responsible for overseeing and developing the college’s marketing programs. He has a background in sales and marketing, where he filled a range of positions encompassing both consumer-to-consumer and business-to-business markets and across a range of industries. His experience spans both agency-side and marketing management roles, which have helped to inform his perspective on marketing from both a practitioner and an academic angle. And as a longtime member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, he was recently honored to attain the designation of Chartered Marketer. Will has taught in higher education for a number of years and on both sides of the Atlantic: in the UK as a faculty member with the University of Essex Online, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds City College, and Askham Bryan College; and in the USA he has taught for both Excelsior College and the University of the People. In 2013 Will was recognized for his qualifications and experience in the field of higher education and he became a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. From his practical experience in consultancy and market research, Will developed an academic interest in fields of marketing that relate to market research and the role of big data. He also explores issues of consumer behavior and the impact of the evolving field of behavioral economics on the marketing discipline. And his previous experience in sales also fuels an ongoing interest in sales and sales management and the role of sales professionals in a global context and in terms of cross-cultural issues.

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