What Makes Stuff Go Viral?

    What makes one piece of media content go viral and another a dud? I’ve been living that question for most of my career. If you count the 365 Dilbert comics I create each year, my blogging, my writing for other publications, and my books, I’ve seen a lot of my own content go viral, and far more it go nowhere. Is there a pattern?

    I’m tempted to say there is, but that would not explain the fact that no one can produce a viral effect on demand. If there were a formula to it, one could hit winners most of the time. I would love to tell you I know in advance how readers will react to my writing, but I can’t. My recent post on science’s biggest fail went viral and I didn’t see that coming. This is what my blog traffic did when that post went live. 


    I’ve read a number of books and articles about how to generate viral responses. Everyone seems to have a slightly different take once you get past the obvious. I thought I would share my non-standard view on what makes things viral. This is based on pattern recognition, not science, so please adjust your opinion of my credibility accordingly.

    My observation, based primarily on my own viral creations, is that there are three separate targets you need to hit to generate a viral reaction. The topic needs to already be in people’s minds, the quality has to be “good enough,” and it has to appeal to folks’ egos. Let me step you through it.

    Top of Mind

    Topic is tied to the headlines: Any topic that is already in the news and getting a lot of emotional reaction is a good bet for going viral. You don’t have to guess whether people care about the topic because the media has already done that work for you. 

    A famous person is involved: Famous people interest us for all the wrong reasons. But it’s a fact of life, and the attraction to fame and power probably has evolutionary causes that are baked into our DNA. As a semi-famous public figure, I have that base covered every time I write. If you aren’t famous, it helps to write about someone who is. But it isn’t required.

    Quality Minimum

    Good enough execution: It goes without saying that you need a minimum level of quality in your presentation or no one will want to share it. But that standard is flexible. Amazing content can compensate for average style. And great writing can bring average content up a level. In a perfect world, you want both great writing and great content. But content will always be the most important element so long as the writing is good enough.

    Emotional hook: People need to care about the topic in an emotional way. You want people to feel something: love, laughter, outrage, or whatever. To generate a viral response you need to move folks on an irrational level. If your topic is interesting and true, but not gripping in any emotional sense, that is good enough to get you paid as a professional writer, but it is not enough to create a viral piece of content.

    Appeal to Ego

    Say it Better: People like it when you say what they are already thinking but you say it better than they were thinking it. It creates a feeling of intellectual clarity in people who had only vague feelings and biases before. People enjoy that sensation and it makes them feel more rational and intelligent. Best of all, they can forward your writing and bolster their egos by associating themselves with it. 

    As an artist, your bias might be to create new things and challenge people to find a way to enjoy it. (Technically, that makes you more of an asshole than an artist, but stay with me on this.) For a viral response you don’t want to challenge people’s thinking. You want to IMPROVE on the ill-formed thoughts they already have. It makes them feel smarter. And when you feel smart, you want to share because that’s what egos do.

    Usefulness: Experts agree that if something is useful it is more likely to be shared. People love to help others when it involves no significant effort and it can make the person doing the helping feel smart, important, useful, and generally an awesome human being. Useful information plays to everyone’s ego in just the right way.

    Natural Audience: The more specific the audience, the more likely your content will be forwarded. I discovered this by doing comics that mentioned specific job titles and seeing those get passed around the most. If your content makes fun of people who collect stamps, for example, you can expect it to be thoroughly shared within their ranks. You want people either to say, “That’s me!” or “I know that person!” Those are the two reactions most likely to cause you to share. The reaction you don’t want is “That’s interesting." 

    The reason you will never see a foolproof formula for creating viral content is that every situation is unique. What works for one piece of content might not be necessary for the next. And most of the raw ingredients for going viral are rough substitutes for each other. For example, the more famous the celebrity involved, the less we ask of the content. And the better the writing, the less we need in terms of "wow” factor in the underlying ideas. And so on.

    The bottom line is that you always know after the fact why your content did not go viral. But you rarely know beforehand.

    And it goes without saying that people will share anything cute, hilarious, or dangerous-looking. 

    Okay, so how did my post about science’s biggest fail map to my viral formula? I think it hit all the variables one needs for a viral response. Here is my scorecard:

    Topic from Headlines: measles vaccinations, climate change, diet science (a threefer!)

    Famous Person: me

    Good enough execution: The writing is functional and clear. Good enough!

    Emotional hook: vaccinations and climate change are life-and-death issues

    Say it Better: I focused on why science has a credibility problem instead of focusing on the science of vaccinations or climate change. That change in focus allowed both sides to say, “Yes! That!” It feels like clarity.

    Usefulness: The post was designed to be useful for anyone trying to understand why so many folks are rejecting science. You can’t solve a problem until you trace it to the proper root cause. 

    Natural Audience: I hit four natural audiences in one post: science lovers, science skeptics, fitness/diet enthusiasts, and mansplainers who salivate for these topics.

    Now compare my post that you are reading right now on the same viral scoreboard. This post has no emotional content. It is simply an attempt to be useful and interesting. And it has no natural audience because few of you are trying to make viral content on a regular basis.

    I’m still as semi-famous as last week, and I hope I explained things well, but my formula for viral posts suggests this one will get a ho-hum reaction and little sharing. I’ll update you on it later to see if I am right.

    [Update: As predicted, my regular audience read this post but it did not generate a viral reaction. It did not get posted to any online sites that drive traffic. It got tweeted enough that I know marketing professionals found it interesting, but it did not trigger any emotional response.]

    Scott Adams

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