• Alex Vikner

What Makes Online Content Viral?

Content. We post it, share it and consume it, in massive amounts.


Sometimes, a piece of content spreads rapidly online through website links and social sharing. This is what we call viral content.


What causes content to become viral? Why do we consumers share it with. others? Ultimately, is virality random or can it be predicted?



Berger & Milkman (2012) posit that virality is not random. Content is more likely to spread if it evokes positive (rather than negative) and high-arousal (rather than low-arousal) emotions.


Simply put, for content to become viral it must make us consumers stand up from our chairs, preferably in awe, excitement, or amusement.


The last thing it should do is to evoke sadness. Let's see why.


Sad Content Doesn’t Spread Well

In 2020, the Dutch development organization Woord en Daad created a campaign to increase donations.


In the ad they showed the hardships of children in third world countries, while telling joyful stories of Dutch children in the background.


The idea was to empower the audience to donate by showing them the contrast between the two different childhoods and the impact their donation could make.


This led to sadness being dominantly evoked and consequently the ad was not shared a lot.


Ingredients of Viral Content

Social transmission is less about motivation and more about the transmitter’s internal states.

Berger & Milkman (2012) find that affect-laden content is more likely to spread. Simply put, emotion drives social transmission.


Content evoking positive (rather than negative) emotions is more likely to go viral.


However, the role of emotion in transmission is more complex than valence alone. In fact, arousal mediates the impact of emotion on social transmission.


Activation (a.k.a. arousal) drives social transmission and positive emotions activate while negative ones deactivate.



Content that evokes high-arousal emotions tend to become more viral.


Getting People Excited

Perrier, a French sparkling water brand, launched an ad campaign, ‘Le Club Perrier’, which went viral, reaching nearly 1 million views in the first week.


By showing attractive people in a party-setting, Perrier evoked excitement in the ad. This positive high-arousal emotion led to high transmission unlike the sadness in the Woord en Daad ad which led to low transmission.


Arouse the Audience

This research has huge practical implications. When creating content, if the goal is to make it spread, practitioners should aim to evoke high-arousal emotions, preferably positive.

For instance, ads should amuse, amaze, or excite and public health information should be framed to evoke anger or anxiety rather than sadness.


Rather than targeting “special” people, Berger & Milkman (2012) argue that it may be more beneficial to focus on crafting contagious content.