Social Media Marketing 101: What Makes Content Go Viral?

Chris Horton
Chris Horton Digital Strategist, Synecore

Posted on August 1st 2013

Social Media Marketing 101: What Makes Content Go Viral?

social-media-marketing-viral-contentThe term “viral” is on everyone’s lips these days. Media outlets large and small are increasingly devoting time to covering the latest viral video or tweet. But what exactly is viral content? Does viral content tend to have certain characteristics that lend to its success? Why do we love it?  Simply put, what makes content go viral?


By way of a social media marketing 101 working definition, content goes viral if it spreads very fast on the Internet, just like a flu virus would in real life. The content itself can be an article, a blog, a picture, or a video, but it must be very funny, controversial or thought-provoking so that people feel an urge to talk about it or share it on social media.

Marketers are always trying to create campaigns that go viral. Hubspot social media scientist Dan Zarella defines a viral marketing campaign as “any online content created with the intent to ‘go viral.’ This includes non-interactive media like videos, podcasts, articles or blog posts, as well as interactive content like tools, web-based games or ARGs (alternate reality games).”


Viral content has three characteristics that lend to its success. Most obviously, people need to find the content exceptional for whatever reason. It needs to become a meme. First introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a meme is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Memes are the cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures much like a virus does.

Second, in order for content to spread quickly to a broad audience, it needs to appeal to market mavens or influencers with high social networking potential (SNP). Finally, viral content must be easily shared. This is where social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are ideal transmitters of viral content. Viral content should also engage viewers by allowing them to comment, share and get involved. The more engaging and shareable content is, the more likely it is to go viral.


According to an oldie but goodie infographic from Mashable, successful viral content displays one or more of the following characteristics:

  • It’s hilarious
  • It’s unbelievable-makes our collective jaw drop
  • It provokes an emotional response-positive or negative emotion
  • It agrees with our worldview
  • It’s thought-provoking
  • It’s taboo-not covered by mainstream media
  • It’s dramatic-makes for good gossip

Most online content does not go viral. Viral content is unique and rare. It is a living meme, tapping into the cultural Zeitgeist in a way other content just doesn’t.

What do you think makes content go viral? Share your thoughts!

Chris Horton

Chris Horton

Digital Strategist, Synecore

Chris Horton is a content creator and digital strategist for Minneapolis-based integrated digital marketing agency, Synecore. An avid tech enthusiast, Chris has written extensively on a number of topics relevant to the growing marketing technology industry, including SEO, inbound, content, social, mobile, email marketing, apps, online branding/PR, and Internet trends. Chris' marketing tips can be found on Synecore's Marketing Technology for Growth blog. You can connect with Chris on TwitterLinkedIn, or Google Plus, or email him at [email protected]. Check out his new book, Digital Marketing: Integrating Strategy and Tactics with Values, published by Routledge in October of 2014.

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Anika Davis
Posted on August 2nd 2013 at 12:46AM

Content becomes viral because of many factors to consider such as luck, timing and placement. It’s a meme because a user happens to have bumped into it, got creative and replicated itself. Content, before it turns into a meme, is young and untapped. It will stay that way before someone gets a hold of it. For it to develop you must create content which is organic and unrestricted so it will let it sell for itself. Thanks for the article!

Posted on January 20th 2014 at 10:25AM

Viral needs luck and freshness....