Spiral Into Virality: What Makes a Post Go Viral

I get infuriated each time a certain piece of mediocre content goes viral. The frustration probably stems from my intolerance for the topics that people usually get aroused by. However, psychological arousal is essential for inspiring action and as a marketer, my disgust is completely ungrounded.

I want shares just like everyone else does.

Pay Attention To Me

Therefore, I take an interest in the phenomenon of shareability. What makes one share a post? Why do people get engaged in online activity? What makes them comment and spread the word about a post? According to a research conducted by Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, it all comes down to emotions. Let’s talk about how emotions relate to the very nature of virality.

Is Virality Random?

Light Bulb Exploding

“I don’t want everything I f*****g see to be a stream of deliberately random sh*t pre-programmed to go viral.”—Drew Magary

I completely understand Drew’s point of view here. It seems as though the posts that are shared the most do not have any relation to one another whatsoever. Here’s a screenshot I took off Buzzfeed’s homepage at the very moment of writing this post.

BuzzFeed Screenshot

These posts appear to have nothing in common, but we will need to take a closer look at each one. The first one makes you feel satisfied because it offers new ways of preparing your favorite food. The second one makes you angry because it takes a stab at your ego and personal opinions. Lastly, the third post deals with a viral hit that is PokemonGO and offers some practical insights regarding the game. So what do these three posts have in common? The answer lies within.

I’m just kidding. It’s all about valence and emotion.

Namely, valence can be positive or negative. We are often attracted to or diverted from certain posts based on their valence. In content marketing, both positive and negative valence can be beneficial to the virality of a post. This means that people like sharing both positive and negative content. But why do certain pieces of content evoke stronger user activity than others?

Virality is Driven by Psychological Arousal


When we look at a news headline, we immediately become aware of the valence of that particular piece of news, i.e. whether it is associated with positive or negative emotions. Valence, however, does not always determine the degree of a post’s virality. People generally share good news more than they do bad ones, but the negative stories still make the first pages of the magazines. So how does that happen?

It is because we are psychologically aroused by the negative and positive news in similar ways- they make us engage in a certain activity. This means that emotions of the same valence can have different degrees of activation. For example, anger and anxiety will motivate us enough to react to a certain piece of content because we are in a state of high- activation. Sadness, on the other hand, is associated with low- activation and we will usually avoid spreading it around.

Positive Content Gets More Shares


According to the research of over 6000 New York Times articles, Berger & Milkman concluded that the affect- laden content gets more engagement than neutral pieces of content. Still, positive content gets more shares than its negative counterpart.

Altruistic Sharing

Some news or pieces of information get shared because they contain useful information. We share such practical content mainly for altruistic reasons, i.e. to help other members of the online community.

Another reason why practically useful content gets shared is to appear knowledgeable and in that way enhance our public image. This is yet another example of how sharing positive content reflects good on the sender and can boost our moods as well.

Inspiring Content

Awe-inspiring content is a rarity, but it gets the most attention and activity. People love being impressed by something tremendous. It evokes a positive feeling of hope and admiration toward something big and interesting and essentially influences our mood in a positive way. Of course, the content in question has to be readily available.


Positive and practical content coupled with the negative content of high activation is what gets the most shares and ultimately becomes viral. However, it is important to note that the placement of the content also plays a big role in its shareability as well.

According to the NY Times research, articles that appeared on the top of the homepage got the most attention and were mechanically better predisposed for virality and made the NY Times most-emailed list. The claim is also supported by the experts at Kingcontent, whom I have had the pleasure of speaking with regarding the issue.

Articles That Were Shared the Most

Let us list the topics of the posts that made the most-emailed list. These posts have appeared on the NY Times website’s homepage and got plenty of attention because of all the aforementioned reasons.

  • Emotionality: “Redefining Depression as Mere Sadness”
  • Positivity: “Tony Award for Philanthropy”
  • Awe: “The Promise and Power of RNA”
  • Anger: “What Red Ink? Wall Street Paid Hefty Bonuses”
  • Anxiety: “Home Prices Seem Far From Bottom”
  • Sadness: “Obama Pays Tribute to His Grandmother After She Dies”

It is apparent that the basic emotions we covered influence the virality of a piece of content. Other than emotions, there are several other factors that can influence content engagement in a positive or a negative way.

Additional Factors That Influence Content Virality

  • Writing Complexity – Depends on target readership.
  • Article Length – Can influence sharing. Longer articles tend to be shared the most, but it is not always the case.
  • Author Gender – Research has shown that articles written by female authors get more shares.
  • Time-sensitive Sharing – Posting at times when most readers are active can lead to an increase of engagement.

Anger and Amusement


Another part of the NY Times research was a study in which 45 participants were asked to read a high-anger and a low-anger version of the same (negative) customer experience story and answer some questions afterward. The story that induced more anger and arousal was more likely to be shared than the other article, which supports the fact that high arousal is associated with high activation.

A similar method was used for amusement. Participants were asked to read a high-amusement and low-amusement story, with the former being the one that got the most hypothetical shares. Readers like to be entertained and to entertain others as well (sharing is caring).

Marketing Implications

Content marketers have to start paying attention to psychological aspects of engaging with a piece of content. While well-designed product reviews and positive news and articles present a client in a good way, what really does the trick for better promotion is the evocation of the high-arousal emotions. It is these emotions that make readers go into action and share a piece of news or react to a story. Creating contagious content heavily influences positive ROI and researching the psychological processes that shape social transmission, one can gain even deeper insights in what kind of content becomes viral.

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