content, viral, viral marketing, growth marketing

What makes content go viral

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Table of Contents

Ivan Jerkić

Ivan Jerkić

I might know a thing or two about branding, performance marketing, content creation, product discovery & growth marketing, so to put it simply – I’m the marketing guy.

I read the fantastic book called “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger a few months ago. It made me rethink the approach to developing content marketing strategies by infusing the viral growth “gene” into the core idea of a product.

I used to think that these things couldn’t really be predicted or at least measured consistently and that viral marketing is nothing more than a set of growth hacking tactics – a buzzword.

However, that’s not true. You can engineer content from the very beginning to be viral, and if you know how to do it properly – it will grow on its own.

I went so far in exploring this idea that I decided to do a long-term marketing experiment on one of the internal SplitX ventures. We will see how it will pay off (and if it will pay off). I promise to update this post in a year with actual results from the campaign.

So, what makes content go viral?

If you google this question, you will probably end up on either of two generic results:

  1. You will land on a website talking about the “viral coefficient” and “viral cycle” that doesn’t explain why some products fail despite having a significant coefficient.
  2. You will read a guide focusing on the execution of viral growth tactics, which again doesn’t help if you don’t build the whole product, or better said, idea, to become viral from the very beginning. You cannot grow something designed not to grow at all, doesn’t matter how hard you try.

Unfortunately, both will leave you with more questions than answers.

I mentioned earlier that viral takeoff could be designed into the product and therefore predicted. You can do it by following the “STEPPS” methodology.

social sharing, word of mouth, viral marketing, content
Source: Unsplash

Key “STEPPS” in building a viral product

Jonah Berger’s six principles in creating a product to be viral from the get-go can explain why some things catch on while others fail.

S – Social Currency

Does talking about your product or idea make people look good? Can you find the inner remarkability? Leverage game mechanics? Make people feel insiders? What we talk about influences how others see us? We are dying to know “secrets and collect loyalty points to make us feel like insiders.

T – Triggers

Consider the context. What cues make people think about your product or idea? How can you grow the habitat and make it come to mind more often? The top of the mind makes the tip of the tongue. Remember Rebecca Black’s “Friday”? It peaked on YouTube searches every Friday for years.

E – Emotion

Focus on feelings. Does talking about your product or idea generate emotion? How can you kindle the fire? High arousal emotions (on both spectrums) make us care more. When we care, we share. Aim for awe, excitement, amusement (humor), anger, and anxiety. Avoid contentment and sadness – or anything low arousing.

P – Public

Does your product or idea advertise itself? Can people see when others are using it? If not, how can you make the private public? Can you create a behavioral residue that sticks around even after people use it? You cannot grow something without showing it first.

Notice the Apple logo on your MacBook – it’s flipped upside-down when closed and looks normal to others when you open the laptop. Seeing others doing something makes people more likely to do it themselves. For the same reason, anti-drug commercials always increase drug abuse among teens rather than the opposite.

P – Practical Value

News you can use. Does talking about your product or idea help people help others? How can you highlight incredible value, packaging your knowledge and expertise into helpful information others want to disseminate? “The rule of 100” is a great example here. If the product’s price is less than $100, percentage discounts will seem larger. If the product’s price is more than $100, numerical discounts will appear larger.

S – Stories

What is your “Trojan Horse”? Is the story not only exciting but valuable? Is your product embedded in a broader narrative? Helpful information travels under the guise of idle chatter. Stories are vessels, a “Trojan Horse” for your products and ideas – but they need to connect them to a broader narrative. A remarkable story without that connection won’t benefit your bottom line.

Follow these six “STEPPS,” build them into your product, and watch it go viral. Let me know how it went!


  • Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Johan Berger

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