Understanding Viral Content

We’ve all seen the videos, articles, memes, etc. that go viral. We see them, our friends send them to us – it seems that every time we turn around there they are, in our face again. So how does this happen?! How did a simple 10 second video become nationally recognized and accumulate millions and millions of views?! Or an accidental photo with some words on it get millions of shares?

Let’s step back for a second. What exactly is viral content? According to Break Through Content

“Viral content is any piece of media that suddenly becomes an online sensation. You have almost certainly seen this happen – that indelible image or outrageous video that gets forwarded to you by a dozen friends in under an hour.”

… and we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Viral content comes in many forms and evokes a wide array of emotions from its viewers. Some viral content is relatable and goes viral simply because people get it. It puts a smile on their face. Let’s take one of my personal favorites – the “I wanna take a nap girl” – who I commonly refer to as my spirit animal. We’ve all had days where being an adult was just too great a burden to bear and we needed a nap. NEEDED one. It didn’t matter where said nap happened, but it needed to happen soon. So, in 2011, when a popular vlogger, Reality Changers, posted a video of his daughter SO ready for a nap – people got it. Over 6.2 million people viewed the original YouTube video and we have no doubt that they smiled – because they also wanted to take a nap. RIGHT HERE.

Relatable content like the “Take a Nap” video are typically the ones that make us laugh the most, but they are far from the only type of viral content. Some relatable content goes viral to spread awareness. The most recent example of a viral video used to inform consumers is a video of United Airlines forcibly removing one of their passengers on an overbooked flight. In addition to the $3.8 million views on YouTube, the video was played across all major news stations and even got a mention on Ellen’s monologue. This particular piece of viral content evoked emotions from horror to sadness to anger at United Airlines. It made such a splash, in fact, that United Airlines faced boycotts and legal ramifications and as a result changed its policy on over booked flights. Unlike the relatable nature of a little girl so desperately wanting a nap, this video is relatable to anyone who flies. This incident involved a standard, commercial passenger chosen at random to be removed from the flight. The feelings of anger and sadness come from the realization that this could have been any one of us on that video.

Viral content goes beyond just video footage. Viral content can come in the form of articles, especially those that target a specific demographic. Have you heard that the oldest child is typically the most intelligent? Or perhaps that women need more sleep because their brains work harder? With a combined 4.7 million shares, I can bet a lot of you have heard those two pieces of information. Your position as a woman or only child may have determined your likeliness to share 😉

What about memes? A simple picture that someone added witty wordage too and in turn goes round-and-round the internet with more interpretations than you ever thought possible. Take #SaltBae – he was just trying to salt some meat and BAM, he’s a meme!

So now that we’ve covered what viral content it, let’s talk about how to create it! Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of Business wrote a piece on “What Makes Online Content Go Viral” and gave us a few pointers:


  1. When building content, Positive > Negative – remember, there are a lot of unhappy people in this world.
  2. Build content that evokes high arousal emotions like awe, anger, anxiety, etc.
  3. Practical, useful information gets shared – people want to help their friends and followers


Now that we’ve defined viral content, laughed about some examples of viral content and gotten some pointers on viral content … it’s time to create viral content!

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