Like a Virus: Secrets to content that is powerful, promising and timely

Updated: Jan 16

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We’ve all at some point encountered content that has gone viral or read articles related to content that is so compelling that thousands or even millions of people have shared it in a matter of days and sometimes even hours. All of these shares create a buzz around the product, service, brand or person that is featured in the content. More eyes on the product or brand necessarily have the potential to catapult consumers awareness of your brand. As a business owner you might wonder, can this type of content do something for our business? Is it worth investing time and money in trying to develop this type of content? How do we actually go about doing that? Well in this article we will explore all these questions and help give you an insight into what makes content viral and how you can make this type of content work for you.

Criterion of Content: the STEPPS Framework

Viral content is content created by brands which aim to “persuade consumers…to become the vehicles through which... advertising campaigns [are] conducted” (Camarero, & San José, 2011, p. 2293). This content might be emails, videos, social media postings which when distributed by a friend, rather than spammed by a brand will be more likely to be viewed and further shared to other friends, acquaintances, family or business contacts (Dobele, Toleman, and Beverland 2005 cited in Moldovan, Steinhart, & Lehmann, 2019, p. 103). If content is shared by someone the consumer knows personally who they have established a relationship with they are less likely to see it as “junk” (Phelps et al. 2004 cited in Moldovan et al., Steinhart, & Lehmann, 2019, p. 103) to be discarded expeditiously. To evaluate how persuasive content is created we must first examine six criteria of content that your consumer will be dealing with: these are social currency, triggers, emotional resonance, practical value, public and stories (i.e. the STEPPS framework). Key to this framework is the necessity that content is at the very least visible and entertaining. For the purpose of this article, however, we will zero in on the first four of these criteria which I feel ar the most important to get right.

Social Currency

Every consumer wants to feel they stand out from the crowd and that they are unlikely any other consumer. Social currency, the desire or wish to do everything to maintain this self-perception. This is achieved through engaging in activities that they consider make them look good, smart, or knowledgeable to others (Pressgrove, McKeever, & Mo, 2018, p. 2). Content, therefore, needs to appeal to this need to stand out and be perceived as more in the know than others. It makes sense then that content that is “unusual, extraordinary, or violates [consumers] expectations [will be] more likely to be shared” (Berger, 2013 cited in Pressgrove et al., 2018, p. 2). It is also for this reason that unexpected, mysterious or controversial content will attract more attention than content that is none of those things (Chen & Berger, 2013; Heath & Heath, 2017 cited in Pressgrove, 2018, p. 2).


Even though every consumer likes to think that they are making rational, well thought out choices it could be argued that many of their actions and words are in fact instinctual. What a consumer sees, hears or reads will encourage them to act upon unrealised intentions (Berger & Fitzsimon, 2008 cited in Pressgrove, 2018, p. 2). It’s been noted that seeing, hearing or reading content multiple times will further incite a consumer to act upon their unrealised intentions. Additionally, the unrealised intention can be acted upon even if what the consumer sees, hears or reads has no direct relationship or link to it (Berger & Fitzsimon, 2008 cited in Pressgrove, 2018, p. 2). For example, there is no direct item-part relationship (i.e. ‘week’ and days of the week ‘Monday’, ‘Tuesday’, ‘Wednesday’, etc), no direct class-exemplar relationship (i.e. ‘animal’ and different animals ‘Leopard’, ‘Gazelle’, ‘Ostrich’, etc) or no explicit or implicit redundancy (i..e. ‘your fingernails are part of your fingers’ and ‘your fingers are part of your hands’).

Emotional Resonance

While emotions may be much maligned in comparison to intellect they are a fundamental part of us all and it’s these very emotions that you need to tap into in order for your content to best reach your customers. Your content needs to evoke certain emotions in order to become shareable first in a small way and then in much larger way. Emotions are evaluated along two dimensions: the valence (i.e. are they positive or negative) and intensity of these emotions (Botha & Reyneke, 2013, p. 162). Although all strong emotions can affect a reaction in the consumers some emotions may be more favourable to evoke and result in more effective goal achievement. For example, emotions like pride, attachment, empathy, and emotional wisdom and some you might want to avoid are evoking guilt, shame, embarrassment, envy, jealousy, and social anxiety (Botha & Reyneke, 2013, p. 162). In any case we can easily see how the emotions of one “person or group [can] influence the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious [transmission] of emotional states and behavioral attitudes” (Botha & Reyneke, 2013, p. 162) in the workplace and the same mechanisms online and more specifically on social media.

Practical Value

While social currency, triggers, and emotional resonance play an important role in the virality of content you mustn't overlook the pragmatic nature of your consumers. If the content you are providing is practical and informative and the consumers perceive usefulness in transmitting your content to others you have achieved your goals. Your content might be shared out of altruism on the part of your customer (in order to show love or affection to the individuals/s they are sending this informative content to), to connect and share with others (Ho & Dempsey, 2010, p. 1001) or as a means to network, build and nurture connections and ensure themselves professional success in future (Ho & Dempsey, 2010, p. 1001).

Social and attitudinal determinants of virality

With each new technological innovations comes yet another way to communicate with others and with that an ever-increasing number of messages we may receive but also transmit to others. We get warnings about the viruses that can be transmitted through forwarded e-mails but not all forwards are negative and yet can “infect’ our networks in other ways.

Receiving the virus (message) is obviously necessary for transmission to others, who consequently transmit it again and so on to create a large network of infected people (Neuborne, 2001). Throughout web-based opinion platforms, newsgroups, discussion forums or personal e-mails among others, the internet is considered to play the role of the vehicle transmitting the virus, simplifying remote communications, and providing them with greater fluidity and speed (Datta et al., 2005).

(Miquel-Romero & Adame-Sánchez, 2013, p. 1972)

To better understand this process of infection we should look at three things that will determine whether one of these pieces of information (i.e. the content that you are devising, creating and transmitting) will become viral. These are the consumer's relational network, viral dynamics and the consumer's attitude towards viral content.

Figure 1 Viral Marketing Model (Camarero, & San José, 2011, p. 2296)

Relational Network

A consumer's relational network is defined in three ways:

  • the structural dimension (the connections between individuals of a social group)

  • the relational dimension (the willingness of people to act together)

  • the cognitive dimension (the degree to which individuals have a shared vision and language).

(Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998 cited in Camarero & San José, 2011, p. 2294)

Structural social capital is based on how many connections your consumer has and how often they reach out to these connections (Camarero & San José, 2011, p. 2294). Relational capital is based on the strength of these connections which will determine to what degree there exists reciprocity between those connected individuals (Chan and Li, 2010, (Camarero & San José, 2011, p.2295). Cognitive capital is based on the degree to which these connection share values, meaning, language and narratives. The perceived benefit to the recipient would be amusement, information, inclusion, assistance, comfort, etc.

A Viral Marketing Campaign – An example

To give you an example of how a viral content campaign might work I’ll use the example of a downloadable resource that you could make available on your website. You might choose multiple channels in order to get the news out to your customers. You might place a banner ad (advertising your brand online and linking back to your website), you might use SEO (search engine optimisation so that your brochure comes up in search queries), you might have a link on your homepage, you might have a dedicated homepage for your viral marketing campaign, you might advertise it in your company e-newsletter, get influencers to promote your campaign or advertise it through e-mail updates to subscribers.

Figure 2 Campaign Elements for the Automotive Marketing Campaign (Ewing, Stewart & Maher, 2014, p. 212)

Your customer will end up on the landing page you’ve designated and be prompted to register in order to get their free download. You might ask for name, address, postcode or city (all information which will help you better determine who is interested in your content). Once your customers have done this you can prompt them to let their connection know about this free download. The process then repeats itself and results in more than one opportunity to add the recipients to your database as potential future customers.

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To ensure that this positive infection spreads it’s critical to develop content that is compelling and easy to be shared. All of these shares will create a buzz around the product, service, brand or person you are featuring in your content. More eyes on the product or brand necessarily have the potential to catapult consumers awareness of your brand. Hopefully this article has helped you determine the usefulness of devising viral content, has demonstrated the value both in time and money of doing so and succinctly demonstrated how to do it. May this insight into what makes content viral and how you can make this type of content work for you help you to feel more assured in your ability to create your own viral sensation.

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