Is Your Communication Contagious?

February 19, 2018 | blog | By

By a margin of 10 to one, I bet the question we get asked more than any other at Iluminere is “how do you make content go viral?” People want to know how to make communication contagious. How do we get 1,000 shares, 10,000 likes and a million views? Surely there’s a formula by now. (There’s not.) Surely it can’t just boil down to sheer luck. (It doesn’t.)

The truth is, there’s no simple recipe for making something go viral. If there was, I’d be retired on a beach somewhere. As much as we’d all love to have the magic formula, or be able to explicate remarkable products, brands, and communications for the secrets that caused them to blow up and take on a life of their own, it’s just not that easy and there are three reasons why.

First, what we’ll call “viral” communications often look, feel, and sound just like pedestrian efforts that never get a fraction of the traction. They’re easy to pick out after the fact, but not so much on the front end. There are literally millions of funny kid videos on YouTube, but for some reason “Charlie Bit My Finger” has 858 million views and counting. Why that one?  

Second, communications don’t happen in a vacuum. People receive them at a very specific moment in time with thousands of physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, political, cultural, and environmental factors that influence when, where, and how each is received. One year for Christmas, we launched a goofy holiday video with puppets singing about the year that was. It got a million hits on YouTube. The next year, we launched another one just like it. It barely hit 10,000.

Third, and this is the hardest one to figure out, each viral communication has a special X factor that you can’t just pull out and say, “that’s it!” It’s like a pheromone. You can’t see it, smell it, taste it, or touch it, but it’s there and it absolutely drives your behavior. Think about the hundreds of thousands of competitive male swimmers who have ever lived. Now, try and point to the exact thing that makes Michael Phelps the most extraordinary swimmer ever.

Trying to decipher exactly what makes viral content viral is at best an educated guess. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. And it doesn’t mean we can’t improve our odds of creating engaging content by understanding the kinds of things viral content has in common. We can. And we do.

One of my favorite reads on this topic is a book called “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at Penn’s renowned Wharton business school. In the book, Berger suggests that after years and years of research, he and his team have identified six ingredients, or principles common to content they consider “contagious.” Content that, historically, people have passed along. Berger compacts the six principles into the acronym STEPPS which stands for: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories. Each one gives communication a better chance to catch on but when used together greatly increases the odds that our brand, product, or message can go viral. 


S – Social Currency

Consciously, or unconsciously, we all use information as social currency. We love to tell secrets because they make us look like we’re in the know. Likewise, we share things that make us look good to others. That’s why we tell each other jokes. Why we share outrageous fortune cookie messages. People remark on things they find interesting. It’s why we talk about Hollywood movies and Facebook more than we do aspirin and banking. If you want people to talk about something, figure out what makes it remarkable and focus on that.

T – Triggers

Triggers do an outstanding job of bringing things to our attention, or making us connect to something out of the blue. The challenge is, we can’t really control when they happen. When NASA started their missions to Mars, the sale of Mars candy bars went up. When wine stores played French and German music, the sale of French and German wines went up. When people vote in a school, a higher percentage vote Democrat. When they vote in a church, they tend to vote Republican. Triggers work. But they happen when they happen. What we can do is put cues in our communication that are likely to link with common triggers. When we can link to a trigger that’s encountered frequently, all the better.

E – Emotion

We are all moved by the power of awe and emotion. That’s why we share articles and videos about breakthroughs in science, things we can’t believe and baby animals that warm our hearts. It’s why last week Elon Musk shot a Tesla into space instead of just another rocket. It’s why we watch talent shows waiting for that one performance like Susan Boyle, or Elha Nympha to unexpectedly take our breath away. Content that makes us feel good gets passed around and it doesn’t require a big budget, or great talent. A video called “Parisian Love” for Google shows evoking emotion is really as simple as a great story, executed well.  

P – Public

The power of the public is called different things by different people. Social norming. Social proof. Berger calls it, “the psychology of imitation.” The idea is that we tend to pay attention to what everyone else is paying attention to. When we do, the quickest way to be a thought leader is to be assertive when others are silent. Actions are public. Thoughts are private. The Movember movement to grow mustaches to bring awareness to cancer in November spread because it was visible. The ALS Ice Bucket challenge spread because it was public. Before we can help our ideas become more popular, we must first find ways to make them more public.

P – Practical Value

People love to share things that are practical. Things that are useful. Things they think their friends and colleagues could benefit from having. Recipes. Life hacks. Deep Discounts. Homeopathic cures. It doesn’t hurt that passing that information along also nets a little social currency (see Principle No. 1). When we can provide the information in smaller chunks, or in a list like Letterman’s Top 10, or The New York Times Best Sellers List, it’s even better. Practical value works because reading specific content often triggers in us a thought for who could benefit from seeing it.

S – Stories

People don’t think in information. They think in narratives. Stories are humanity’s greatest vessels for delivering information. From Jesus’s parables to Greek mythology, from Fairy Tales to popular fiction, stories teach us something. They evoke emotion. They stir something inside of us that says “that looks like me.” Brands, products and people that wrap themselves in great stories relevant to who they are, are far more memorable than those that don’t.

It’s easy to think of viral content as something that happens because a small group of influential people somehow will it to spread. But that’s not how it happens. Social epidemics are driven by the quality of the ideas themselves. By how unique and remarkable they are. By how well they evoke a sense of awe and emotion in us. And by how well they pull us into the story they’re telling.

There’s no magic solution for making something go viral. But with strong communication and great planning, we can stack the deck.   

JOSH WHITAKER is Director and Partner at ILUMINERE, the country’s leading challenger brand agency for digital, social, mobile, and user experience. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog


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