How to create viral content: formula for success

Original author: Kristin Tynski
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Along with turning search engines to users and taking into account user factors, which we repeatedly wrote about in our blog, related issues become interesting, such as the relationship between the theory of planned behavior and the spread of viral content. This text talks about assessing viral potential using the already legendary Scarecrow campaign.from Chipotle. The unique viral video has been watched more than 13 million times, not only thanks to the wonderful animation and well-planned campaign, which included, among other things, motivation for user activity through applications. Behind the development of the concept of this viral material is a whole science, which Christine Tinsky spoke about. In the spring of 2014, she published this article on the YouMoz Blog. The material of the article is quite debatable, as well as its presentation, however, it touches on a topic that is close to the philosophy of the SocialTask product : the information noise from your content on social media can be obtained much easier than it seems. The translation was made for and posted with the permission of the analytical department of ALTWeb Group .

The translation is given in a slightly reduced and modified form for ease of understanding.

When creating content for a site, we face a very difficult task: to create content that resonates with our audience, stimulates activity and often spreads virally.

You have to spend a lot of time observing what is already working and you always want to build the process on the basis of lessons learned from living examples. One of the most important factors is the need to refine the content again and again until we ourselves feel that it has a viral potential and that the user can “fall into” what he saw. What are the main components of this process? What is the formula for creating successful viral content? That's how:

Yes, it seems a little frightening, but I’ll reassure you: in fact, it’s not so difficult. Let's figure it out together.

Press the desired buttons

Let's start with the assumption that every person in your audience potentially can and wants to share your content, just does not know about it yet. Click on the right buttons for the right people - and voila! - excellent virusnyak.

What buttons are you talking about?

Theory of Planned Behavior

In 1985, Isaac Isen, currently a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, developed a theoretical framework for a model that explains and predicts human behavior. Since then, Theory of Planned Behavior has been widely used to explain human behavior and has been exhaustively studied in a number of scenarios. Today we apply this theory to the sharing of online content.

The theory of planned behavior claims that each of us makes a decision (rationally) whether or not to support a certain type of activity. Accordingly, a reasonable explanation for making this or that decision is based on finding the number of discrete variables, which means that if you can define each of these variables, you can predict the behavior.

Details of the theory:

The theory of planned behavior can be divided into four components:

  • Behavioral Attitude (AB)
  • Subjective Norms (SN)
  • Perceived Behavior Control (PBC)
  • Behavioral Intent (BI)

Using these elements, we can simplify the formula that I gave at the beginning of the article.


Now let's define the terms in order to better understand the meaning of this equation.

Behavioral Attitude (AB)

Those who throw out some information in their own way understand the potential positive and negative consequences in response to what they share, as well as the severity of these consequences. This is the attitude to behavior. There are two main points:

1. How content sharing assesses the potential consequences of their actions (f)

In a situation of behavior related to the distribution of content, this is a group of potential consequences that may occur as a result of the action taken (and the one who distributes the content, understands this).

2. The strength of these potential consequences (b)

In our case, this is how, again, by distributing the content, we evaluate how powerful the consequences will be. It may be that by distributing some content, we assume that those for whom it is intended may perceive it ambiguously. In this case, this variable will show HOW ambiguous the content will be perceived.

From this perspective, let's see an example of a Chipotle campaign. This video gloomyly describes the artificial food industry and is aimed at both raising awareness among the audience and drawing attention to the fact that Chipotle offers an alternative to nutrition.

Such an attitude requires a detailed study of one’s own position on the issue, otherwise there is a risk of losing. Indeed, with such a clip Chipotle could provoke dissatisfaction with companies that adhere to an opposite philosophy. Nevertheless, Chipotle weighed the pros and cons, and decided to launch the campaign: apparently, having come to the conclusion that there will be more positive consequences than negative ones.

A number of comments were really negative: they recalled that Chipotle was selling soda (obviously not compatible with the principles of healthy eating - approx. Transl.) And complaints that the app accompanying the campaign did not have a version for Android.

But in general, the campaign was met very positively and received more than 11 million views on YouTube with more than 61,000 likes and a rating of 3.5 stars in applications. It’s clear here: the negative consequences could not outweigh the positive ones.

Subjective Norms (SN)

This is how the information disseminator imagines the potential reaction of his audience. This is what motivates him to comply or not conform to certain norms and perceptions of those who see the content.

This segment can also be divided into two sections:
1. Strength and depth of the norms and perceptions of those who see the content (n)

In the application to our situation, this indicator is derived from the general expectations of society regarding behavior and its norms that are important for your audience . And this indicator also shows how strongly these expectations are rooted in society.

2. The force of motivation to adhere to certain standards (m)

In our case, this is our assessment of the consequences associated with how the content meets (or does not meet) the standards and expectations of the group of society to which it will be presented. In simple terms (it would be high time - approx. Translations), this is how you imagine the reaction of your audience to content.

Before Chipotle launched the Scarecrow campaign (“Scare the Crow” - approx. Transl.), Most likely, the study showed that people are concerned about the quality of the food they eat. The campaign would allow them to reach out to this troubled audience and at the same time enlighten and reassure them.

If they were mistaken, the whole strategy would collapse, and they themselves would sound like moralists.

Perceived Behavior Control (PBC)

This is, as far as the disseminator of information understands, factors that can limit or vice versa facilitate behavior, as well as the strength of these factors. Like the previous elements of the formula, this can also be divided into two components:

1. Controls (c)

In our case, these are all factors that make the dissemination of content easier or more difficult. Geography or technology, what can interfere or accelerate the dissemination of information?

2. Strength of controls (p)

When applied to a content distribution situation, this variable is an approximate estimate of the content distributor about how difficult or easy this content will be to distribute.

The Chipotle campaign faltered in this case on the Android system for which the application was not written. However, this turned out to be an obstacle not of such great strength, and just a video was enough for many. Well, the Chipotle team itself tried to make people aware of the video and the application and it would be easier for them to share them.


If we take the sum of all these factors and their components, we can predict the Behavioral intention, i.e. the attractiveness of the content for the user, or how much he would like to share this content. Thus, the formula will have the following form:

How to apply the formula in practice

We analyzed the impulse that makes the user want to share content. We need this in order to be able to think carefully over each component in order to maximally accurately assess those factors that will ultimately affect user behavior. Will they share our content or not? Let's start with the following:

How can I use Attitude to Behavior (AB):

Recall Attitude to Behavior (AB) determines the positive or negative consequences and their strength / severity. The consequences may be different:

  • The type and strength of the emotions that content will trigger in response. Human beings are extremely prone to emotions and empathy, so evolutionarily we have developed many ways to share emotions: from facial expressions to the complexity of the human language or body language. We are adapted to spread not only ideas, but also emotions associated with them. The same applies to how we share content online. Content conveys emotions, and we really strive to see the reflection of our own emotions in those who are not indifferent to us. When we share content that has affected us emotionally, we would potentially like to feel these emotions again and relive the moment when we first felt them. This is one of the reasons why emotionally charged content is most often warm and cozy. People are more willing to share content, which will make others feel good, rather than content that makes everyone feel bad. The stronger the positive emotional reaction, the higher the viral potential of the content. If you share negative content, you are aware that those who receive such content will act on the basis of experienced negative emotions. Therefore, negative content is shared only if there is a different, additional motivation, some additional value of the content, in addition to emotions as such.
  • The way the content reflects the one who shared it. Content can be seen as a continuation of your own ego. This is another reason to share content, including because it allows us to gain a foothold in our own point of view, in the way we perceive ourselves. We are thinking about how this content will affect how others around us see it, as well as how this content allows us to better understand ourselves. Pay attention to your own habits: how do you share content on Facebook. You can well understand which of your friends is more interested in politics or in the family, who is more likely to be in a good mood, and who is depressed, etc. All this can be assumed only by the type of content they share. We all share something each time more clearly describing ourselves.
  • What is the tangible benefit to you of sharing content? The New York Times published an interesting study on what encourages us to share content. The conclusion of the study is that we share content when we can have tangible benefits. The study speaks of five leading motives for distributing content:

  • Share useful or entertaining content with others. According to the survey, in 94% of cases, respondents carefully evaluated how the content they distribute will be rated by those who later see it.
  • Show yourself to others. Content is shared to better identify their priorities, both for themselves and for others.
  • Develop and strengthen your relationship. In 78% of cases, respondents admitted that they share content in order to keep in touch with those with whom they communicate a little.
  • Feel in touch. 69% of respondents thus feel their connection with the world.
  • Talk about a business or brand. 84% of respondents admitted that in this way they state the business or brand in which they believe.
  • What does all this mean: If the content simply carries information, we are unlikely to get a viral effect. We need to arouse strong emotions in the reader. If the article, schedule or video is not sufficiently engaging, the reader will not even think about sharing them, because there is no initial emotional experience that I would like to experience again or do something related to the topic.

How Subjective Norms (SN) can be used to enhance the viral effect:

Recall that Subjective Norms (SN) is how you, when disseminating information, understand how your content meets audience standards. Subconsciously, we always consider the following things from this category:

  1. How does the content compare with accepted standards? Even if the content is fully consistent with your standards, but at the same time may be contrary to some audience standards, you are more likely to slow down and not be in a hurry to share it. It is important to note that the audience is the main thing, therefore, social norms can vary greatly depending on the audience. More often than not, we may well distinguish between different groups with different (or opposite) subjective norms. Compare with your own behavior. If you want to share the latest issue of Comedy Club, you can think about it if your page is read by someone from your friends or relatives who watch only state television channels.
  2. How strongly do moral standards affect the distribution of content and how pronounced can the consequences be in case of violation of these standards? If you know that the content will be contrary to the subjective norms of your audience, this will not always stop you. To begin with, you will think about how dire the consequences will be. After all, not all social norms are equally perceived. For example, killing does not correspond to ideas about the norms of behavior in society, but coughing without covering your mouth with your hand does not correspond to them either. Therefore, you first weigh the pros and cons, and then you can decide whether to violate the rules or not.
  3. Can part of the audience act like outcasts, contrary to the norms? This can be, if sharing the content, we do not take into account all the norms, but only the norms of a particular individual, most often the one that can serve as the source of the most significant consequences. So, your behavior will be different depending on whether you have a leader in your friends or not.
  4. Norms may also vary depending on the channel through which information is distributed. Anonymity will play a huge role here, as it can remove any hesitation about whether to share content or not. If a person is not threatened with consequences, then the behavior becomes more straightforward. This is important to take into account, because different channels of information exchange have different levels of user anonymity. If you have accounts on 4chan, Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter, you will most likely be sharing different content on these channels. Not only the subjective norms will vary depending on the selected channel, but also the desire to comply with them.

What it gives us: When you come up with and implement content, remember that not everyone is equally willing to share a certain kind of content. Conduct a study of your target audience to find out what they most often share and discuss. And then create your content on the resulting patterns.

How can you use Perceived Behavior Control (PBC) to create viral content:

  • Recall that Perceived Behavior Control (PBC) takes into account factors that simplify or inhibit behavior. Namely:
  • How long will it take to share the material. Everything that will facilitate this process needs to be done. Simplicity is most important. Even if you add just a couple of seconds to this process, for example, hiding the “share” button somewhere, you may lose the opportunity to interest the user.
  • How much effort you have to make. Do everything you can, yourself. For example, automatically add the text with which the link will be posted on Facebook or Twitter.
  • The presence of technical difficulties. We need to make the content as easy to share as to read it. For example, check the infographic insert code so that nothing is crooked. Check that the elements are reflected normally in all browsers. Make sure everything works, otherwise users will not share content.

What it gives: The way you format and submit content can either stimulate the audience to share or prevent it. Make sure readers have everything you need to easily transfer content further, with just a couple of clicks. If this takes extra time, then, most likely, your content will change their mind about sharing.


At the beginning of the article, we mentioned the formula:

The only thing we have not talked about yet is the W variables. These are just coefficients, each of which has its own weight and thus shows how much each of the main factors affects the final result.

The weight of each of the main factors depends on the audience and content. Here's how to understand which of the main factors is “more basic” for you in this case:

Attitude to Behavior (AB): How often does your target audience share content? If so, then this part of the equation weighs more in your case, because you need to somehow stand out in the stream of information, pictures and texts that these users exchange, otherwise the chances of sharing your content will be small.

Subjective Norms (SN):How many representatives of your audience are public figures or occupy key positions? If so, then it is very unlikely that they will share ambiguous content that violates moral standards. So your content must necessarily correspond to them, and then this part of the equation will be the main thing for you.

Perceived Behavior Control (PBC): Your target audience is not very active on social networks, is not very versed in how to use different devices? In this case, you need to pay maximum attention to the device page to convince the audience to share content. You need a convenient interface, otherwise, even if the audience is hooked, there will be no viral effect.

The whole formula can be used to evaluate the audience’s reaction to specific content. In summary, do your best to:

  • There was a benefit, real or imaginary, from the reader sharing the content.
  • Avoid content that would bring to the user a negative opinion of others if he shares it. Don't try to play on ambiguity unless most of your audience appreciates this.
  • Do your best to make your content easy to use and share.

Thus, if you are aware of what hidden factors influence the distribution of content, you can greatly affect the success of this enterprise.

From the ALTWeb Group campaign: in turn, we add that users themselves can infuse your content if you find them through the SocialTask system . SocialTask ​​system is a guaranteed viral success of your text or video, limited only by your budget.

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