How to Create Viral Marketing Content: A Cognitive Perspective

How to Create Viral Marketing Content: A Cognitive Perspective

How do we create viral marketing? Everyone wants to create viral marketing content, but there is a science to it. And how do we get audiences to “catch on” to our brilliant idea? This comprehensive article will disclose what makes people share an idea and how to make content go viral.

Catching on is a case where a product, idea, or behavior diffuses throughout a population. Think of how a virus starts with a small set of individuals and then moves to a broader set. The idea or trend “catches” like a virus and becomes contagious.

So why do some ideas become more contagious or successful than others?

Is it the case that better ideas or products always win out? Is it the case of better technology or better advertising? If it's not quality, and it's not advertising, and it's not always price, what leads some ideas to be more successful?

It’s important to understand the social dynamics that lead ideas or products to catch on. Sure, price, advertising, and other aspects matter, but what also matters is behavioral science.

four drivers of social epidemics
  • What makes ideas stick in memory?

  • How does one person’s decision influence others?

  • Why do we share word of mouth about certain ideas or products rather than others?

  • How do social networks shape and spread information and influence?

In the following sections, we'll address each of these key ideas and discuss how they combine together to make products, ideas, and services catch on.


Why do ideas stick in your memory?

Why do we try some products rather than others? Well, we often don't have enough knowledge, time, or money to try every possible product available. It’s common for companies to get their products in front of us to make them easier to try. If you go to a grocery store, for example, you may see a sample of a food product. Food companies use samples to make it easier for you to test that particular product. Social influence and why things stick aren’t the only concepts to consider, however; we should also look at how to lower the barrier trial to get ideas or products to catch on. 

A variation of messages could impact whether these contagious ideas succeed or not. The successful spread of a message is based on how those ideas fit within our memory. Certain ideas align with our interests and the way we think, and as a result those ideas stay in our memory and are more likely to be transmitted later on. Whether it's a long message or a short one, whether it's a piece of online content or a video we saw — these messages are impacted by their environments to determine whether they succeed.

Take a look at the five principles of stickiness and how they impact how messages and ideas spread:


Less is more. Tell a friend ten messages, and they're not going to remember any of them. When their attention has to focus on all ten of them, one-tenth of their attention goes to each of those messages. But if you tell a friend one message, they're more likely to remember it because they focused all their attention on that one particular message. 

When communicating just one specific message, analogies are a useful tool. By taking a universal truth and relating it to a new idea that someone might not understand, you can more quickly communicate a new idea in a way that will make a real impression. 

How to incorporate “simple” into your marketing and advertising:

  • Find the core concept

    • Pick one (fine, two or three at the most) idea messages

    • If listeners walk away with one thing, what should it be?

  • Analogies are a great way to connect us with complicated messages

    • By comparing your core concept to an idea that everyone knows, we get some sense of what this new concept is.

  • Simple concepts are a way to spark our curiosity and pique interest


To make ideas stick, we have to make our messages unexpected. What do we mean when we say unexpected? We have to disrupt expectations by breaking a pattern. Because when an idea is unexpected, it grabs our attention. 

To make concepts or ideas stick in a consumer’s memory, we need to hold their attention by opening up a curiosity gap.  Creating a curiosity gap for the consumer shares enough information to encourage consumers to find out more. The curiosity gap creates a mystery that entices us to want to know the answer. And so really good, sticky concepts open up a curiosity gap.

Too often when marketers want to sell a message, they hit us over the head with information. They tell their audience how much they need to care about this particular product. But really good marketing and messaging pulls us in rather than pushes us away. It opens that curiosity gap to grab our attention.


Too often when we communicate, we don't use concrete details. Business language, for example, tends to be obtuse. The use of “buzzwords” in business language often overcomplicates the message.

To make ideas stick, we have to provide more concrete details. Can you see it or visualize it? When listeners close their eyes, will they be able to imagine what you're saying? 


When we try to convince others to believe our message, our default tendency is to use statistics. While statistics can be useful in convincing some consumers, most often numbers aren't particularly memorable. If your goal is to make a lasting impact, you need to make sure you're communicating your credibility in a manner that goes beyond your statistics. How can you put them in a context that will make them more impactful? Putting statistics into context, by making them part of a story, for example, is far more impactful and makes us seem more credible..


When it comes to emotion, what we really want to ask is how can we get others to care? You want them to not only listen to what you are saying but also really care about your message. The more they care about your message, the more they personally involve themselves. The more you invoke emotions, the more likely they will be to become engaged in the content,, and the more likely they are to remember it later on. 

Think about the last video you shared or the last story you passed on. It's likely that it had an emotional component. The more it pulls us in and tugs on our heartstrings, the more likely we are to care and remember how it made us feel.  As you’re considering incorporating emotion into your marketing, first think about which emotion you want your audience to feel. Think about how you can play on that emotion when you're designing your story or message. 

If you want others to remember what you have to say, don't just communicate information; evoke emotion, get them to care, and they're more likely to remember.

the power of social influence

Almost every decision we make on a daily basis is affected in some way, shape, or 

form by others. One major way social influence affects our decisions is through conformity. We're more likely to do something that our friends, neighbors, or co-workers have done recently. 

Conformity happens for two key reasons:

  • We look to others to figure out what the right thing is to do in a given situation.

  • We look to others as a shortcut to judgment. It saves us time and effort to look to others in what they have done previously.  

If we don't have a lot of time to make the decision, and we're not extremely motivated, we're much more likely to turn to another person to help us make that decision.

We're much more likely to use social influence when we’re in a crisis or uncertain about what to do. This phenomenon is known as informational social influence, and it occurs when we rely on others to determine our course of action.

Many companies and organizations take advantage of social influence. Companies that put out ads claiming, “we're the best selling,” or “we're number one,” are trying to demonstrate that many others have bought that product and thereby encouraging us to think it's probably pretty good. 

Using Social Influence to Increase Success

Not only can conformity shape the individual buying decisions we make, but it can also be a driving factor for why some products and ideas become more popular than others. Success is often unpredictable, not just because it’s based on quality but also because it is based on social influence. 

Social influence does two things. First, it increases inequality. It makes popular things even more popular, and unpopular things even less popular. More importantly, it also makes success unpredictable.  

When Social Influence is Anti-Social

Social influence is similar to a magnet. It can attract or lead us to imitate others, or it can repel or lead us to avoid what others are doing. For example, when we meet a new person for the first time, we make inferences about who that person is based on how they're dressed, what kind of car they drive, or what type of music they listen to. These inferences can communicate specific ideas about others around us. As a result, we buy products not just for what they do or for their functional benefit but also because of what they mean  — what they symbolize or communicate about us. 

One way consumption gains meaning is through brand positioning and what impression the brand is making on the world. Whether through an ad or the in-store experience, brands spend a good chunk of time and money associating themselves with a particular identity. 

And so the signal values depend not only on what the brand says about their products but also on who is using their products. If companies want to convey a certain meaning, they may adopt concepts that signal that meaning to others. Adoption by outsiders can change the perception of a particular brand. You see this with celebrity endorsements all the time in advertising. 

Conformity Versus Divergence

At what point do we conform to popular ideas or products versus diverge? It turns out, the choice in conformity or divergence depends on the product category or domain and what that domain might say about us.

Certain products are more functional, whereas others are more symbolic. 

Everyday items like the bike we use, the backpack we carry, or what type of pen we write with, are chosen mainly for their functional benefits. Other practical items are more symbolic: products like music, cars, and clothes can carry more of a message.

Symbolic products serve to communicate a consumer’s identity. The reason for purchase is no longer merely about the functional value of that product or service but what the item is communicating to the world about the individual who owns or uses it.

Promoting Positive Buzz in advertising and marketing

What makes certain messages or ideas more attractive than others? Why do some get spread or shared while others don't? 

  • How can we make our messages tastier?

  • How can we craft contagious content or build word of mouth and buzz?

  • How can we use word of mouth to get our own products, ideas, and services to catch on?

We see viral content on the web, and we think we know what makes them go viral. But if we don't understand the science behind social transmission, we’ll never be able to get messages to catch on. We have to understand how to craft contagious content.

Why Word of Mouth Matters

Data shows that word-of-mouth advertising generates more than twice the sales of traditional advertising as well as more than twice the sales of any company-generated communication. 

In fact, a dollar spent on word-of-mouth advertising goes 10 times as far as a dollar spent on traditional advertising. And you might wonder why word-of-mouth is so effective. Well, there are two key reasons. 

  • Trust

  • Targeting


The first benefit of word of mouth is that we can trust the message. Did you know that a company’s “referred customers” who come in from a different existing business have a 16% higher customer lifetime value? They're better customers because someone went through their social network to find the person who would be most interested in what you have to offer.  

And that brings us to the second benefit of word-of-mouth advertising, which is targeting.  

It can be challenging to know who might be most interested in what you're selling or what you're offering. How do you find the right customer base? How do you find folks who might be interested in what you have to offer but haven't purchased from you already?

It can also be challenging to know whether customers who use a reviewing outlet, such as Yelp or another online review forum, have bought your products or instead are working with a competitor. But word of mouth makes targeting much more effective. 

If only 7% of word-of-mouth advertising is online, why are companies investing so much money in social media? It's not that digital and social aren't useful channels, but they're not the only way that others talk about and share information. We spend hours out of our day talking face to face with others that we forget about the power of word-of-mouth. Focusing so much on the technology can cause us to forget about something much more important: psychology.

Six Keys That Drive Us To Talk and Share Information
social currency

Having access to something that not everyone else has makes you feel smart; it makes you feel in the know. It gives you what is called social currency. Just like the car we drive and the clothes we wear, and the ideas we share affect how other people see us. One reason that drives us to pass ideas or recommendations on is that it makes us look good. The better something makes us look, the more likely we are to share it. 

So if we want to get people to talk about us, what we need to do is find that social currency. Consider how we can make customers, clients, or the people we want to talk about us feel like insiders.  

This video has over 18 million views. Blendtec creates videos for many different products. Their set of videos on YouTube has over 200 million views. Blender sales increase over 700% when a new video comes out, and anyone would be happy with a 700% sales increase. Blendtec created this video with a $50 marketing budget, and that's not even the most remarkable part about this video. They created these videos for one of the least exciting products ever — a blender. 

It's not that certain products are born remarkable while others are doomed to fail. 

Any product can be remarkable if you show people rather than tell them.


When we think about marketing, we often think whether consumers will like a product. We think the more people like it, the more inclined they will be to buy it. But it's not just whether we like something that determines whether we buy, it's whether we're thinking about it that determines the sale. If something's top of mind, it's going to be more likely to be tip of tongue and manufacture a “trigger.”

As you think about what trigger would be appropriate to link your marketing concept to, pick something that appears frequently in your consumers’ everyday lives. Think about who it is that you want to think about you, your idea, or your product. Think about when you want them to think about you or your idea. Think about what is in the environment around that time and how you can link yourself to that trigger. 


When we think about emotions, we tend to categorize as either positive or negative emotions. Usually we think positive emotions are those such as excitement, humor, inspiration, surprise, or contentment. Negative emotions tend to be those like anger, anxiety, or sadness. 

In reality, emotions differ beyond just whether they’re positive or negative. One other differentiator on which we should consider emotions is by how activating or arousing they are. 

 Some emotions, like anger, are activating — while others, like sadness, are deactivating. Think, for example, what we do when we're angry. We’re fired up, and we want to take action. When we're sad, we want to curl up in a ball and do nothing. All high-arousal, or activating, emotions encourage us to share, while low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions discourage sharing. 

It’s not enough to just make consumers feel good. Too often, company executives believe as long as people like them more than they dislike them, then they’re doing okay. But too many companies make their customers feel content but not activated, excited, surprised, or inspired. The feeling of contentment will not make us want to share.

If something is funny or makes us angry, we're fired up and more likely to share. We must find that emotional core and think about using those high-arousal emotions to get others to share. 

Many emotions will stick, but only certain emotions will convince others to spread your message. Using those spreadable — contagious — emotions will persuade them to pass on ideas.


If everyday consumers can't publicly see what other consumers are saying about a product or idea, they can't conform to their opinions. Because if an idea is built to show, it's built to grow. The easier it is to see, the easier it is to imitate. And so in thinking about how to apply that idea, we need to make private things more public. Make the unobservable things more observable. Too often what we do is not easy for others to see because we are afraid what others will think about our shared opinion.

practical value

We share ideas and concepts that help others and can bring value to others’ lives. Whether it is a recommendation of a product or an article with helpful tips, we typically share things that make us look good. 

Too often, we're looking at our phones rather than truly interacting with those around us, and sharing content is a way to deepen connections between those we don't see as often. We may not see our friends in person as much as we like, but by sharing things with them, we can deepen our social bond. 

One way that companies take advantage of social sharing is through content marketing.

Rather than talking about themselves, they share useful content that their customers want to share with others. 


As brand loyal as consumers are, they don't want to follow brands that share messages that sound like ads.  The more a message sounds like an ad the less likely we are to share it. So we have to give our network an excuse to get them to share our message. And stories are one way to do exactly that. 

Good stories are like carriers of information. Incorporating a specific brand, idea, or moral into the story will help it be memorable. 

Remember the Will It Blend video? You probably think Blendtec makes an especially powerful blender, which is exactly the attribute they want to impress upon you. They didn't just build a story; they built a story that carried their message along for the ride. 

Stories are the currency of the conversation. They're the way we communicate. 

But certain stories can be more effective than others. If you want to get your idea to spread, think about how you can build a story that carries it as part of the message.  

How Social Networks Spread Information & Influence

When we say social networks, you’re probably thinking of online outlets like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. But consider how social networks have been around for much longer than just the internet. 

Our social networks can be:

  • Friendship networks – networks of people who know each other

  • Phone networks – networks of people who have called each other

  • Work networks – networks of people who have worked together 

Just like online social networks, not everyone is just one hop away. Sometimes it takes multiple degrees of separation to connect people into our networks. But we can reach many people in just a couple of hops. The farther a message or idea can hop, the better chances it has of becoming viral. 

Our communal ties aren't random. We only get to know a small set of the people that are around us. The tendency to be friends with others who are similar to us is called homophily. 

 For example, if you play a lot of soccer, you’ll probably hang out with others who play soccer. If you like going to movies, you’ll probably go to movies with others who like movies. As these bonds form with those similar to us, over time, we become connected with more people that are similar to us.

what is a network

A network is composed of: 

  • Nodes - people within a social network

  • Connections - bridges joining different nodes

If there's not a way for information to spread to different networks through connections, it's unlikely that information will become contagious. How can we determine whether an idea will spread throughout a certain social network? First, we have to look at what contagious content has spread through that network already and introduce identical ideas or concepts. Keep in mind that certain network structures might be more likely to spread information than others.

how networks shape the spread of information

You may have heard the term “network effects,” a concept that’s slightly different than social networks. Network effects is the idea that if a product or service is more valuable, it’s more likely that others are using it. No one wants to be the first person — or even the 100th person — on Facebook. If no one else is in a network, it's not valuable. 

At the beginning, network effects can slow diffusion, but later on, they can actually speed it up because once enough people are doing something, it'll catch on even faster. 

The pattern of social ties is as important as the number of others involved.  

Social ties are the bridges that help us spread information and influence. It's not just about how popular those people are, or how many friends they have, position matters as well.  

People are not only influenced by people they know but also by others they know who know others who know others, and so on. And so influence can spread throughout a network, not just from one person to the other. 

It's not easy to know what our network looks like. That difficulty is part of the power of social media. It makes ideas and messages spread much faster to particular individuals, but sometimes that message isn’t always as pleasant as we want it to be.  

sprinkler vs waterfall strategies

When marketers are trying to spread a new idea or ad, there are two types of strategies they can use to reach new demographics: sprinkler and waterfall. A waterfall strategy is concentrating all your marketing efforts in one place or one region. A sprinkler strategy, on the other hand, is spreading your resources to a number of different areas. 

The benefit of a sprinkler strategy is that you'll be able to start many seeds in many different communities, spreading out the content. This is an effective strategy because it could get an idea to catch on faster in different networks. A waterfall strategy can also be effective if your audience needs multiple doses of influence before they will adopt something.  

In order to determine whether to use a sprinkler or waterfall strategy, first understand whether that message you're hoping will catch on is a simple or complex contagion. 

simple versus complex contagion


  • Requires more doses of influence before you're willing to adopt

  • Tends to be more costly, whether in terms of time, effort, or energy 

When you have a complex contagion, you need to utilize a waterfall strategy. When your audience needs multiple doses of influence before they're willing to adopt your product, they'll need to hear about that product or service from multiple sources before they feel comfortable. Use the waterfall strategy to spread the message to a wide audience. 


  • Takes one dose of influence before consumers are willing to adopt 

  • Tends to be less costly, whether in terms of time, effort, or energy

If you've got a simple contagion that requires only one effective dose before consumers are willing to purchase, then you can spread out your resources and utilize the sprinkler strategy. Over saturating the market with your message will be a waste of some of your marketing resources.

social ties and active sharing

It turns out that all our social ties and network connections don't find out about something at the same time we do. In fact, information doesn't flow like water through an open channel as it does in a social network. Instead, it requires active sharing. 

Rather than thinking about social ties as bridges between islands, it's better to think of them as drawbridges for sharing information that can be either opened or closed, depending on whether someone wants to pass something on. 

But importantly the bridge connections also depend on the type of ties holding it together. There are two different types: strong ties and weak ties.

Strong ties are the people you talk to often or that you've known for a long period of time. They could be good friends, family members, or others that you know quite well.

Weak ties are more casual relationships, such as those you talk to infrequently, acquaintances, or someone you bump into at the water cooler. 

Weak ties have access to different information sources than our strong ties do. 

Because of homophily, our friends often pull from the same wells of information. 

Your weak ties, however, are different from you. You don't know them as well, and they access information from different avenues. Because of that diversity, they may have access to information you don’t.

We typically have many more weak ties than strong, but that doesn’t mean weak ties can’t influence us. Even if each weak tie on average has a lesser effect per individual, because there are more of them, they can add up to have a big impact, if they’re all sharing a similar message. 

What We Share with Our Strong Ties Versus What We Share with Our Weak Ties

It turns out that if someone is a weak tie, we're probably not going to share as much information with them as we would with a strong tie.  

If we don't know someone as well, we are a little more worried about how sharing a particular piece of information might make us look. As a result, we tend to share ideas and concepts that make us look good and avoid sharing ideas that make us look bad. 

If we share a product or service among our strong ties, it may never spread to different groups that might not be connected to that initial group. We need to make sure that weak ties are willing to carry the information to make sure it moves between different social networks. 

While word of mouth may carry buzz and understanding the science behind word of mouth may help us make our messages more contagious, where messages depend on the network. We need to understand how network structures and types of ties will both shape the spread of information and how that influence drives ideas to catch on.

Wrapping It Up

We've discussed how to make ideas stickier, how to gain more influence, how to leverage the power of social networks, and how to generate more word of mouth. 

It's not random luck or chance why some things become popular and others fail — there's some science behind it. 

Understanding that science will help us to craft contagious content and succeed in promoting our products and ideas.


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