What Makes Content Go Viral? Six Intriguing Reasons Derived From 6,956 Articles

If you are a marketing student, content creator, or marketing analyst who wants to make your content go viral or perhaps curious about what makes content go viral, this article is for you. I condensed a 47-page research paper into a diagram that shows the six reasons why content goes viral and explains each factor in more detail. I also included two viral videos that got millions of viewers as examples for analysis. 

What are the underlying principles behind these outliers? Read on this example of a critique of a published paper.

Although this blog gets almost 6,000 unique views a day based on the web assessment tools I used, I tried researching what makes content viral. Viral content means that your content gets shared among readers way more than the other articles you have published in your blog or another website where you posted your content. These articles do not only get hundreds of unique views but thousands, even millions, within a short period.

What Makes Content Go Viral?

The questions on what makes content go viral had occurred to me a few years back when a lady became popular and viral just by changing her facial expressions. So I wrote about it and tried to do a little research on how content goes viral.

If the reasons on what makes content go viral in that previous post were correct, and if I follow them to the letter, perhaps at least one of the articles I wrote should have been viral.

Indeed, I believe that not only one but many of the articles I wrote had become viral if the basis for such classification is the number of shares in that article. According to Digital Marketing Institute’s analysis of over 500 million articles, the average shares of an article is 8. 

If the average number of shares is 8, then that means that the article I wrote and kept on updating on a step-by-step guide on how to write a conceptual framework is already viral content in its own right. That article has 85 shares! It’s way above the average number of shares. That article consistently stayed as a top article in this blog. It’s quite unusual compared to the regular posts I write, where some even have many comments but no shares. When I wrote that article, I didn’t even know or followed good SEO practices.

What makes people share content that goes viral?

Once again, I tried to search for references online. I was specifically looking for a scientific paper as a reference, not just a blog that gives tips based on its interpretation of findings made by other authors. I want to read the results myself and try to understand what makes content go viral. Like what I did with the reference materials I examine, I looked for the specific variables that determine how content goes viral.

I opened a text editor as I usually do when I make notes on what I read online. My intention was to study carefully the first scientific paper that will prominently appear in my search results. I proceeded to Google Scholar to see what publications refer to the keyword “what makes content go viral.”

I chanced upon the 47-page research report by Berger and Milkman (2012) that had 2,386 citations. The high number of citations means that the article is a landmark study or seminal work that served as a reference of other scholarly works after it.

While going through the first pages and jotting down some key points, I stopped and thought of mind mapping as a better way of trying to grasp the findings of that study. I’ll just have to note the essential points and show them visually, so I will better understand how content goes viral. That will also facilitate the layman’s understanding of the paper.

The next section shows the results of that mind mapping exercise.

A Mind Map to Show What Makes Content Go Viral

Specifically, the following mind map shows the causal factors after Berger and Milkman’s analysis of 2,566 out of 6,956 articles published in the New York Times between August 30th and November 30th of 2008. It’s my graphic portrayal of the study’s findings after carefully reading the article.

what makes content go viral
Fig. 1. Factors that make content go viral based on the study by Berger and Milkman (2012).

I paused a while, trying to think about how to portray viral content graphically. It took me a time, but I was amused upon thinking about why not put coronavirus to depict “viral” content. The COVID-19 pandemic is indeed viral.

It’s tedious work doing such analysis because, from the original number of almost 7,000 articles, Berger and Milkman (2012) decided to get a random sample of 36.89 percent. They must have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of articles while analyzing the results of that study. They obtained a sample from a sample as rating each content would rely on the feedback of human raters. Although they used Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), an automated sentiment analysis software, it is challenging to quantify emotions. 

Anyhow, from what I could discern from that study, six prominent factors influence the sharing of articles. The following factors determine how content goes viral. The articles should be:

  1. positive,
  2. interesting,
  3. prominent,
  4. useful,
  5. surprising, and
  6. causing physiological arousal.

The researchers relied on human coders to classify the extent of emotion as automated coding systems could not capture such a variable.

What caught my eye is that the readers shared the articles in the New York Times via email. Reading that “email” was used to share articles would be cumbersome in today’s times to do just that. A simple Facebook share would do the same effect.

Now, it appears that people tend to share surprising or intriguing fake news than factual ones. Talwar et al.’s (2020) recent study suggest that people tend to share fake news as if these are true in their belief that this information will be helpful to their groups.

Anyway, I’ll explain these factors in more detail to be clear about what makes content viral. That’s because just saying that the article is interesting is a highly subjective matter. What may be interesting to you may not be interesting for others. Besides, the researchers took care of that subjectivity of relying on human coders. They validated the response by testing whether the encoders exhibited some form of commonality in their response to articles. They did.


Positive articles contain positive attitude adjectives such as affectionate, creative, friendly, generous, energetic, among others. Hence, if you want to write content that goes viral, you need to write articles that incorporate any of at least 125 positive adjectives

There’s a caveat on the positive way of writing that makes content viral. Please note that negative emotions can also become viral as long as the person who reads the article reaches a level of arousal that triggers the desire to share. The researchers note that these negative emotions specifically relate to extreme expressions such as anger and anxiety. Outrage is easy to figure out, but anxiety is not that well-defined. 

Hence, I looked the word up and saw the American Psychological Association’s definition of anxiety (APA) appropriate in this explanation. Accordingly, anxiety is an emotion characterized by tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Note, that’s quite an extreme emotion because of the associated physical change of increased blood pressure. Just explicit expression of sadness would not cause content to be viral. It causes deactivation, thus is negatively linked to virality.

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.

American psychological association


What makes an article interesting? Interesting things vary between and among people. Making content interesting is a complicated matter because people have different interests or tastes.

In Simplyeducate.me, for example, Figure 2 shows the results of Google Analytics’ overview of the audience’s interest. I would admit that it is not easy to pinpoint what specific articles would prompt them to share the article. I just know that the audience consists primarily of those in the education sector because there were three instances where these were mentioned, followed by the business services group. 

what makes content viral
Fig. 2. Google Analytics analysis of interest groups visiting Simplyeducate.me.

Hence, I should write about these groups’ interests if I intend the content on this site to be viral. But note that this will only cover 31.51 percent, even lesser, as not everything is about education per se. It would be challenging to write articles that cut across all categories.

In theory, it’s easy to say that you should write interesting articles. In reality, you cannot predict how content goes viral. The best you can do is guess what’s interesting. But at least there are still other factors to consider if you fail to make your work interesting.


In the study’s context, prominent refers to articles that appear on the newspaper’s front page or stayed there for a longer time. Thus, more prolonged exposure to the readers gets more shares. The more people see the article, the greater the chance that they will share it. Hence, it pays to have a catchy title that will trigger the readers to click on the link to your content, thus giving it a chance to become viral.


I think this is easy to figure out. If you believe others will find the content you share useful, you will most likely share it with your family, friends, or colleagues.

For example, developing a vaccine with more than 90% efficacy will raise people’s hopes to cope with COVID-19. As virtually everyone is affected financially, emotionally, and economically, this information is very relevant for people to share. 


Berger and Milkman (2012) note “surprising” as one of the reasons why content goes viral. However, I could not find the features or characteristics to define “surprising” in the report. If this is a significant predictor of viral content, then it should be defined.

So what is surprising content anyway?

My brief search led me to this definition. Surprising is something that comes unexpected, meaning the reader unexpectedly finds it unusual. Surprising things are difficult to explain.

Surprising things are difficult to explain.

Let’s take refuge to science to backup this statement.

Foster and Keane (2015) devoted a full paper on what is surprising. They found out that people perceive something surprising if they have difficulty explaining the outcome of the surprisingness of events. Thus, if you can’t explain something, it comes as a surprise.

Causing Physiological Arousal

Upon reading the term “physiological,” my tendency again is to reflect on the meaning of physiological arousal. What can be considered a physiological response that can signal arousal? Can we measure this response?

Van Zyl (2016) mentioned that an objective measure of emotional response includes skin conductivity, heart rate, electrocardiogram, among others. These measures did discriminate response to stimulants in the study that she examined. However, the results suggest that this approach did not differ from the respondents’ report of their own emotions.

Again, people’s emotions are difficult to predict. It is highly subjective. We respond based on our experiences, backgrounds, and cultures. Different people may have different emotional experiences, even when faced with similar circumstances. 

Expression of emotions such as alarm, fear, anger, etc., differs between people. Some respond to situations with a faster heartbeat, rapid breathing, and increased blood pressure, whereas some would react differently.

All the identified likely reasons on what makes content viral thus boil down to one thing. The human mind is complex. You cannot easily predict how people would behave given a situation.

Level of Activation


A key determiner on what makes content go viral is achieving a certain level of emotional response–the Level of Activation. Unless that level is attained, sharing does not happen.

The Level of Activation serves as a gate valve or switch that moderates people to share content that becomes viral. Hence, if you are a content creator, you should write to stir up heightened emotions in your readers. If it does not reach a certain level, which appears to be very much dependent on the context of reading the article, then the article remains in the deep recesses of the internet.

The following videos will test our knowledge and help us understand how content goes viral.

Test Your Knowledge on What Makes Content Go Viral

Given the six predictors of viral articles, how would you assess the string of short films created by BMW, which I feature below?

The first video published in September 2012, titled “The Hire – Ambush,” garnered almost 1.8 million views, while the second one, “The Small Escape,” published in October 2019, reached 23 million views.

That brings us to the intriguing question: “Why is the latter video more viral compared to the previous one?”

See how they compare and find out what makes content go viral. Judge for yourself why the recent video got shared more.

The Hire – Ambush

BMW’s The Hire – Ambush went viral as intended with almost 2 million views in a span of almost eight years.

The Small Escape

Another BMW video created in October 2019 reached more than 23 million views in a little more than one year.

Do you think the predictors of news articles in the New York Times would apply to videos? Which of the predictors would you say triggered the viewers to share the content?

Feeling of Empathy as a Predictor of Viral Content

Viewing these two videos, I felt more obliged to share the second one because of the message it brings. I would say that none of those predictors that I have discussed captured the essence of the second video that got more views in a shorter period. Perhaps the nearest explanatory variable is a feeling of anxiety. But that feeling is transient. What I felt upon viewing the whole story is a feeling of EMPATHY.

I identified myself with the driver who experienced a difficult situation at the checkpoint. Anything could happen. They might discover the person hidden in that small car. It’s a high tension situation that will put the two friends in the East German jail or even get them killed.

It’s a relief to know that that simple plot led to a favorable resolution of the ordeal when finally, the escapee was reunited with his family. It entailed some sacrifice on the part of the driver.

I felt relieved and happy that the outcome is positive. I just consciously stopped the tears that want to escape from my eyes. That story touched me. And mind you, that’s a true story.

Hence, anxiety is only part of the story. On the whole, it is all about empathy or putting yourself in one’s shoes. Do you have the guts to do it?

Well, that’s my analysis on what makes content go viral. What’s yours?


Berger, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2012). What makes online content viral?. Journal of marketing research, 49(2), 192-205.

Foster, M. I., & Keane, M. T. (2015). Why some surprises are more surprising than others: Surprise as a metacognitive sense of explanatory difficulty. Cognitive psychology, 81, 74-116.

Talwar, S., Dhir, A., Singh, D., Virk, G. S., & Salo, J. (2020). Sharing of fake news on social media: Application of the honeycomb framework and the third-person effect hypothesis. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 57, 102197.

Van Zyl, H. (2016). Emotion in beverages. In Emotion measurement (pp. 473-499). Woodhead Publishing.

© P. A. Regoniel 30 November 2020