The Psychology of Viral Content

The web is a busy place. It’s become tough to get noticed

I think that’s why so many folks have become obsessed with the idea of “viral” content.

When something takes off, it’s fun to watch… but are there any commonalities between those things that seem to take-over the internet for a short while?

There’s got to be… right? A way to turn content creation + list building into somewhat of a science?

Research may be of assistance here, giving us a proven look at what makes up a piece of highly viral content.

How To Push People’s Buttons

I’ve just finished re-reading the book Buzz Marketing, authored by a guy named Mark Hughes.

Mark was known as the VP of marketing for back in the day, and was famous for… get this, convincing the town of Halfway, Oregon to rename itself!

Yes, he got a town to agree to name itself after a website.

Apparently, this guy knows a thing or two about creating buzz!

In his book, he outlines the six buttons he’s found in his marketing research and experience that always seem to get people fired up, when presented in the right way.

Today I’d like to discuss how that applies to creating content that gets shared, because once you nail that down, you’ve conquered a huge part of the audience building process.


The 6 Buttons You Need To Push

No matter what kind of content you are creating, or the niche that you’re in, Mark defines these buttons as ones that are proven topics that people talk about. (Please don’t give me that, ‘This won’t work for my niche!’, nonsense)

The six buttons are as follows:

  1. Taboo
  2. Unusual
  3. Outrageous
  4. Hilarious
  5. Remarkable
  6. Secrets

Okay, so there they are, now go out and create content like this and thank me later!

Nah, I’m not going to leave you hanging, let’s dive into what exactly these content types are, and throw in a few examples to boot.

Because cats are the most viral thing on the internet, I’ve decided to capture each “button to be pushed” in cat form.

1.) Taboo Content

Definition: Labeled by a society as improper, unacceptable, prohibited, or profane.


One thing I’d like to mention right away when it comes to producing taboo content is to remember that the term “society” in it’s definition can replaced by a much better description of “community” when it comes to talking about content online.

Therefore, creating content that the community sees as improper, etc etc.

Sometimes, it’s just combining the profane with something seemingly mundane.

I have a pretty hilarious example to showcase this.


If you’re struggling to find something to make for dinner (mundane), why not try WHAT THE FUCK SHOULD I MAKE FOR DINNER? (profane).

Sex, lies, and bathroom humor, all words used to define this type of content, and a surefire way to get people talking.

2.) Unusual Content

Definition: Not usual, common, or ordinary; uncommon in amount or degree; exceptional.

I’ve also mentioned how it’s good to be unusual in terms of how your content is positioned, but I want to take a second here to address an issue that I believes trips a lot of people up.

Unusual doesn’t have to be completely new, it just has to be uncommon enough to leave an impression.

That being said, there’s nothing like some novelty.

I would call Hughe’s effort to get a town to rename themselves after a website quite unusual, but the novelty in the act served as an amazing example of buzz marketing.

Unusual content is the “Did you hear about…” kind of content, something about the presentation or the information makes people do a double-take, and therefore gets them to talk.

3.) Outrageous Content

Definition: Passing reasonable bounds, shocking, unconventional, extravagant.

This is the kind of content that isn’t necessarily shocking to one’s morals, but shocking to one’s previous experiences.

The kind of content that makes you actually speak to your screen, even if you’re all alone in your room: “What the…?”

It doesn’t always have to invoke anger, but it often does.

Sometimes it just invokes excitement, as in: “I can’t believe they are doing that!”

Outrageous content often works well both hilarious content and remarkable content, you’ll notice that an extra “spice” is always added to big projects that already contain an awesome endeavor.

Take Fit 2 Fat 2 Fit, the online tale of a personal fitness model who purposefully let himself get fat, so that he could show how to get fit again.

Pretty outrageous, and it’s certainly a “buzz worthy” take on the personal fitness site.

Do you have to resort to such extremes yourself?

No, but imagine covering stories like that on your blog, the ‘outrageousness’ of the story is enough to generate interest, even if it isn’t you.

4.) Hilarious Content

Definition: Arousing great merriment; funny.

I’m now defining the purpose of all of my future posts as to, “Arouse great merriment!”

Hilarious content is almost always better teamed up with another button pusher (aren’t all of these better paired up? I think so).

For comedians, the “outrageous + hilarious” has worked since the beginning of the profession, throw in some “taboo” and you’ll likely have a star if their jokes are actually funny.

You have to watch with humor though, make sure it fits your actual personality and it’s not coming off as forced, as that will push some buttons, but in the completely wrong way.

5.) Remarkable Content

Definition: Notable, extraordinary, worthy of notice or attention.

That’s what I’m talking about!

The easiest kind of content to define, and yet, oftentimes the most “difficult” (at least in work & time involved) to create.

Remarkable is generally a combination of creativity, execution, and intrinsic value to the reader.

Something that truly adds value to the readers day (or even life), but that’s also presented in a way that few others have dared to pursue.

Again, you have to realize that this don’t have to be personal life experiences, you can cover remarkable happenings, and with incredible writing made for a web audience, come out in the end with a truly remarkable article.

6.) Secret Content

Definition: Kept from the knowledge of any but the initiated or privileged.

This doesn’t really have to be an absolutely ground-breaking secret or totally unheard of.

As an example, take this very post you are reading.

It was inspired by the content in a fairly popular book, but had you ever heard of it before? If you hadn’t read the book yourself (and I assumed many bloggers hadn’t), you would never have known about a lot of what I discussed here today.

I was able to reveal a secret to you because it was new to you, my “initiated and privileged” audience. 😉

I tend to focus on this type often on this blog, especially on my posts that specifically relate to psychology (like this one), because the information often comes across as “secret” to the many readers who haven’t heard of it before.

“But Wait, There’s More!”

If you’ve been browsing the blogosphere recently, you might have seen some “buzz” around Jonah Berger’s piece for the Wharton School of Business called “What Makes Online Content Viral?” (Co-authored with Katherine Milkman).

In the study, they go over many aspects of a piece of content’s potential virility, including positioning on homepages and the like.

The real meat here, however, is their results on the style of the content that goes viral.

Their conclusions suggest the following:

  1. Content that evokes an emotional response is MUCH more likely to go viral
  2. Positive content performs better than negative content
  3. Articles viewed as “practically useful” often performed very well

Number 2 is probably the biggest surprise on that list, but it’s good to have this information tied down to some actual research.

The other big aspect of this study is that Berger & Milkman include the types of emotions that incite viral content.

That means they dug into some of the emotional responses that created the most viral content, and they found the following to be the most effective…

(PS: You’ll notice some overlap with the buzz-marketing content types above, and that’s a good thing, because we have confirmation from two different sources on content that consistently gets people’s attention)

1.) The Emotion of Awe

Headline examples from the study:

  • Rare Treatment Is Reported to Cure AIDS Patient
  • The Promise and Power of RNA

These headlines speak volumes about the types of content that evoke this response.

Exhaustive content, an article in the form of a real-life story (experienced or just covered by you), or a solution to a nagging problem that readers thought they’d never find a solution for fits the bill here.

Content that is just “too good to be true”, you’ll see how effective it is if you pick up any newspaper.

2.) The Emotion of Anger

Headline examples from the study:

  • What Red Ink? Wallstreet Paid Hefty Bonuses
  • Loan Titans Paid McCain Adviser Nearly $2 Million

You’ll notice how the headlines above seek to invoke a sense of disbelief in the reader before they’ve even clicked through.

That’s the power of invoking anger.

When you relay a message that makes people mad, they will want justice, they will also want their voice to be heard.

This kind of content goes viral because people will go out of their way to leave a remark (in the forms of shares & blog posts as well).

Just don’t go around pissing people off all the time! 🙂

3.) The Emotion of Surprise

Headline examples from the study:

  • Passion for Food Adjusts to a Fit Passion for Running
  • Pecking, but No Order, on Streets of East Harlem (story about a bunch of chickens running around Harlem!)

Surprise can be one of the most powerful forms of content to create, if only because you can use it more often than the others.

“Awe” and “anger” both evoke strong emotional responses, but would you really want to go to a site that constantly has you in awe or in anger?

I don’t think so.

On the flip side, would you like a site that surprises you with every post?

I think you get my point!

4.) The Emotion of Anxiety/Fear

Headline examples from the study:

  • For Stocks, Worse Single-Day Drop in Two Decades
  • Home Prices Seem Far from Bottom

People hate losing things they already have, even more than they hate missing out on potentially winning things.

That’s the science behind the psychological process of loss aversion, which is described as:

…people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.

You don’t have to tell people the world is falling down, you just have to have your headline convince potential readers that they could be losing out BIG, but you have the way to fix things.

5.) The Emotion of Joy

Headline examples from the study:

  • Wide-Eyed New Arrivals Falling in Love with the City
  • Tony Award for Philanthropy

Surprising enough, people still like to hear about good things happening to people other than themselves!

Joy is often best used in personal story or tale that aims to connect with readers.

Joy involves things as lofty as triumph, or it can just be about making people feel good.

Funny, inspiring, uplifting, just put a smile on their face at the end of it.

6.) The Emotion of Lust

Headline example from the study:

  • Love, Sex, and the Changing Landscape of Infidelity

This one wasn’t directly featured in the study, but I think the crossover isn’t too far of a reach.

The thing is, people can lust over more than just sex.

Money, feeling attractive, success, the name of the game here is tantalizing people with results.

Case studies often do this well, as they present “lustful” results (“Damn, I wish I had those results!”) while maintaining a ‘non-braggart’ demeanor.

Otherwise, sell potential, and you’ll have readers lusting.

How Does 1,000,000+ Shares Sound? (Example)

“Oh Greg, you so crazy.”

Am I?

This article, entitled 15 Things You Should Give Up To Be Happy, currently sits at over 1.2 million shares.

Outside of pushing buttons, we see that this post is a list post, which isn’t surprising.

Where the author seeks to get emotion out of readers is through the headline and the style/substance of the content.

Personally, I would say that the post pushes the following buttons:

  1. Unusual
  2. Remarkable
  3. Secret

And that it also invokes the following emotions from readers:

  1. Joy
  2. Anxiety
  3. Surprise (maybe even Awe)

You’ll notice that it touches on a few of the “buzz” principles discussed in the beginning of the post, and brings out a few emotions talked about later in the post (and covered in the study on virility).

All great posts will do this; it’s not about nailing down a single angle, you often will have to push a few buttons to get people talking.

This post certainly does that, and although it can be seen as “yet another” life-tips post, the style of the content and the way it really puts readers in an uncomfortable position (and then rewards them for reading) leaves this post as a memorable experience.

Will it Work when Writing for Someone Else?


In fact, since you’re on someone else’s (presumably) more popular site, you have the opportunity to stir up some buzz for yourself with a much bigger audience than your own site.

One of my favorite examples?

Check out Jon Morrow’s guest article on why he wishes he didn’t get A’s in college.

He leveraged the opportunity of guest posting to appear on Penelope Trunk’s blog (a very popular career development site) and decided to address the importance of networking and getting “real” work experience in college over getting good grades.

The thing was, Jon is a master headline writer, and he positioned his post to be a little taboo & outrageous (“Why the hell would anyone NOT want to get straight A’s?”) to push some buttons.

With over 5,000 ‘Likes’, I think it’s safe to say he pushed quite a few, and yet also managed to deliver with content as well, providing solid information on why great grades aren’t the entirety of the college experience.

Over To You

I only have one question today: how are you going to push some buttons in your writing?

Thanks for reading, please share this article if you enjoyed it.