Why Do Videos Go Viral?

The science and psychology behind virility 

Do you remember the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? What about the infamous “dress”? Seriously, was it black and blue or white and gold?

If you spend a fair amount of time on social media, then we’re guessing you remember these taking over your timeline at some point. And, even though their content is very different in nature, they have one thing in common: they went “viral.” Most of us assume that the memes and videos that make their way through the gamut of our social pages are just a happy accident; someone, somewhere shared the right video, at the right time. And while this isn’t completely false, there is actually a science behind the viral phenomenon. 

According to Wharton Professor, Jonah Berger, there are 6 elements (STEPPS) that contribute to the viral capability of content on the internet, and most of them have to do with our human psychology. 

So, here we go! If you’re a content creator looking for a big marketing break, this is for you. 

  • S: Social Currency
    • As humans, we care what other people think. The same way this can change your behavior when interviewing for a job or going on a first date, it also changes your behavior online. Likes, comments, and shares are “currency”, and the more we accrue, the better we feel. By sharing popular content, we can ensure that we are perceived as trendy, informed, or in the know.

How to apply it: Think of yourself as a trendsetter – who is your audience trying to impress? Create content that is valuable to them and will make them want to share with their colleagues. 

  • T: Triggers
    • A trigger refers to any word or phrase that we associate with something else. For example, peanut butter triggers us to think of jelly and marshmallows trigger us to think of s’mores. We also apply this to brands, songs, and more. By creating content that people associate with something else, it’s more likely to stay relevant longer.

How to apply it: Build positive associations with your content such as laughter, and play into universal concepts – for example, if you create a funny video of a dog wearing a Santa hat, your audience has 3 positive connections (amusement, cute animals, and Christmas). Plus, every year when Christmas rolls around, it will trigger memories of your video and lead to more likes and shares.

  • E: Emotion (Our personal favorite)
    • As Berger puts it, “when we care, we share”, so anything that amazes us, pulls at our heartstrings, moves us to tears, makes us laugh or feel informed, is more likely to be shared with friends and family.

How to apply it: Know your audience. What will make them care? What inspires them? Excites them? Try to focus on one strong emotion at a time. 

  • P: Public
    • The more popular something is, the more attractive it is. Also known as “social proof”, which, put simply, means that people usually conform in order to be liked. This is why when something garnishes thousands of views or likes, we tend to copy that behavior and do the same.

How to apply it: As a brand, find out what may prevent your audience from sharing content. For example, many brands avoid polarizing or sensitive topics. Create something that you would be proud to show off, and that your audience would be proud to showcase too. 

  • P: Practical Value
    • This one almost goes without saying, but if content is useful or informative, and we see it as beneficial to our network, we’re more inclined to share. Consider things like recipes, “life hacks”, where to register to vote – all of these things hold practical value and we see the immediate advantage in sharing it.

How to apply it: Think about what information your audience may be seeking. Ask yourself, what are their interests or pain points and how can I address them? Pro tip: Create content that can be used as a resource and returned to multiple times to increase engagement and traffic stats. 

  • S: Stories (A close second favorite)
    • Finally, the last key ingredient for viral content is storytelling. No one can resist a good story, and science tells us that the human brain actually absorbs and retains information better when presented in this format.

How to apply it: Hone in on the way your story makes people think or feel. Take the viewer on a journey in which they are invested in the outcome. Ultimately, people connect with other people, so give your brand its own unique persona and invite the audience to get to know everything about it, including purpose, passions, and values.

After evaluating the 6 “STEPPS” it’s easy to see why certain videos became instant classics. Below are a couple of our favorites in case you need a good laugh and comment below with links to your favorite viral videos too!


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