How to Go Viral: 6 Key Concepts from 6,956 Articles

What are the 6 ways on how to go viral? Apply the lessons learned from a study of 6,956 articles.

If you are a marketing student, content creator or a marketing analyst who wants to make your content go viral or perhaps curious about strategies on how to go viral, this article is for you. I condensed a 47-page research paper into a diagram that shows the six reasons 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 with just a little over 300 articles based on one of the web assessment tools I used, I figured I would try to research what makes content viral.

Going viral 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 get not only hundreds of unique views but thousands, even millions, within a short period.

How to Go Viral?

The question of how to 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.

In that post, I mentioned Izawa’s (2010) explanation of factors that cause people to share content, namely emotions of happiness, humor, surprise, fear, sadness, and anger. If the reasons on how to go viral in that previous post were correct, and if I follow them to the letter, perhaps at least one article 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 share 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 96 shares! It’s way above the average number of shares. And a lot of comments. That article consistently stayed as a top article in this blog.

It’s quite unusual to have such an article that gets shared regularly compared to the regular posts I write, where some posts even have many comments but no shares. When I wrote that article, I didn’t even know or follow good SEO practices. That article has nothing to do with emotions.

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.

When I make notes on what I read online, I open a text editor. I want to study carefully the first scientific paper that will prominently appear in my search results. I used 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 the article is a landmark study or seminal work that served as a reference for 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. To better understand how content goes viral, I noted the essential points, and synthesized them in a visual model.

The following diagram will facilitate the layperson’s understanding of the scientific paper. This simplified knowledge of how to go viral will prove invaluable.

As a result, as one of the readers here, you can go viral on Tiktok, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, among other social media channels.

The next section shows the results.

A Mind Map Showing How Content Goes 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.

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) got a random sample of 36.89 percent. The sheer number of articles has overwhelmed them while analyzing the results.

They got 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, people share surprising or intriguing fake news than factual ones. Talwar et al.’s (2020) recent study suggests that people 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 to others. Besides, the researchers took care of that subjectivity of relying on human coders. They validated the response by testing whether the encoders exhibited a 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 an 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 an interesting one is a complicated matter because people have different interests or tastes.

For example, in, Figure 2 shows the results of Google Analytics’ overview of the audience’s interest. It’s difficult to pinpoint what specific articles would prompt them to share the article. I know the audience consists primarily of the education sector because data analysis results mentioned this category three times, followed by the business services group. 

Google Analytics analysis of interest groups visiting

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 cannot make your work appealing.


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 beneficial, you will most likely share it with your family, friends, or colleagues.

For example, developing a vaccine with over 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 reason 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 unexpectedly, meaning the reader unexpectedly finds it unusual. Surprising things are difficult to explain.

Surprising things are difficult to explain.

Let’s take refuge in science to back up 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 discriminated response to stimulants in the study that she examined. However, the results suggest that this approach did not differ from the respondents’ reports 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 others 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

Level of activation serves like a switch for sharing.

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, 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 How to 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. Ultimately, get some insights on how to make a video go viral by viewing these examples.

The Hire – Ambush (2,017,185 views)

The Small Escape (23,518,823 views)

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. I felt EMPATHY upon viewing the entire story.

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 by the driver.

I felt relieved and happy that the outcome was positive. I just consciously stopped the tears that gradually escaped from my eyes. That story touched me. And mind you, that’s a true story that you can read here.

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 of what makes content go viral. What’s yours?

Are you now ready to go viral on Tiktok? Or perhaps Instagram. Or Facebook?

Increase your chance to get viral on any of these social media apps by applying these tips on how to go viral. Good luck!


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.

Izawa, M. (2010). What Makes Viral Videos Viral?: Roles of Emotion, Impression, Utility, and Social Ties in Online Sharing Behavior. PhD thesis, Johns Hopkins University.

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; updated: 22 June 2022