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The notion of viral content refers to content that gets shared far and wide and often within a short space of time. But what is viral content?


This article is a guest post from the author featured below. Although reviewed and/or edited by Jack & Bean, it is not our original content.

The notion of viral content is oft-used in the media, typically referring to popular content that gets shared far and wide and often within a short space of time. It can be either user-generated by the average person, or it can be a branded piece of content that boosts your awareness and reach online.

But what is viral content? And what qualities does it possess to encourage engagement and shares? Read on to find out.

The Definition of Viral Content

Viral content refers to a piece of content, typically but not exclusively a story or video, that is engaged with and shared online quickly and in high volume. Typical viral content includes humorous videos or heartwarming stories, but each industry has its own specific viral content that relates to its niche.

Of course, virality isn’t something you can build based on a specific formula — there’s no such thing as ‘virality-by-numbers’. The topic alone doesn’t compel shares, as the actual methods of content promotion also need to be considered: the channels you post it on, the influencers you use (whether intentionally or otherwise) to promote it, the format it takes, and so on all play a role.

Consequently, the qualities of content alone do not create virality. But there are certain aspects that your content needs to have, either some or all, to foster viral social shares.

What qualities go into engaging, viral content?

Not all viral content possesses these values — they may only have two or three at once. Regardless, the qualities listed below all play some role in encouraging virality in content.

Viral videos evoke a strong emotional reaction

A huge driver of virality in content is emotion. The ability to evoke a strong emotion from someone, typically inspiration or positivity, is highly effective in driving engagement with a video and, furthermore, encouraging social shares too.

That’s why websites like Upworthy made such inroads when they were first launched. Upworthy specialized almost entirely in soft stories, narratives that pull on the heartstrings.

Take, for instance, the article entitled “Three brave girls took action after their teacher berated a classmate for having two dads”.

Viral Content Emotional Two Dads Berated

The uplifting tale of children standing up for LGBTQ+ rights is enough to melt the coldest heart, and enough to drive social shares into the bargain.

But this goes beyond simply inspirational content, even content that aroused ostensibly negative emotions (sadness or anger) were equally likely to go viral. In a University of Pennsylvania study on viral content, the researchers found that “content that evokes high-arousal emotions […] regardless of their valence, is more viral.” In layman’s terms, regardless of whether the content makes you happy or sad, it encourages virality nonetheless.

Part of this also feeds into people’s desire to signal their virtue. Sharing positive content like the aforementioned Upworthy video shows your followers that you align with that particular cause, highlighting your own values and beliefs into the bargain.

Viral videos are simple, easy to understand, and accessible

On social media, attention is a valuable commodity. If you’re clustering for attention on your followers’ cluttered news feeds, your content needs to be simple and easy to digest.

This starts with the language you use. If you’re writing for the masses, you need to keep it concise and readable. Aim for a readability level of Grade 6 — Hemingway App is a good tool to fine-tune your copy for this.

Another simple trick that increases the chances of your video getting engaged with (and thus going viral) is to simply include subtitles.

The Harmon Brothers marketers’ Daniel Harmon outlines the importance of viral videos with subtitles: “We’ve tested videos that have subtitles baked into those and those that don’t and the ones with subtitles baked in they do perform better.”

Subtitles increase accessibility, both for hearing-impaired viewers and simply those watching the video on mute (often the default on social platforms). But Harmon also highlights that subtitles are the opportunity to reinforce your branding too, through font choice and colors.

Viral videos are presented in a relatable way

A common quality of engaging viral content is relatability — content that people feel is relevant to their own lives. If you want to increases your chances of virality, you need to appeal to your audience in a universal way.

Of course, if your target audience is niche, if they’re interested in specific things such as jewelry or gadgets, for instance, then you will be required to create niche content that appeals to them.

Consequently, this goes beyond simply sharing content that lots of people can relate to. It’s about the way the information is presented. Convey your message in a manner that people are familiar with.

For instance, instead of a jargon-heavy technical video, use pop culture references or a person-led video. The #LikeAGirl video from cosmetics brand Always is a fine example of this:

It addresses otherwise complex issues of teenage self-confidence through people. Empowering and relatable, the viewer can see elements of themselves in the video, encouraging them to share the message with others.

Relatability is about being human, so strive for humanity and personability in your content.

Viral videos offer helpful or useful value

You might have seen videos with titles like “You’ve Been Cooking Eggs Wrong Your Whole Life” or similar. While these titles are obviously clickbait, the actual videos often impart a genuinely useful lesson that people can benefit from.

Youtube Viral Video Helpfulness Useful Value

This is one of the qualities of engaging viral content: helpfulness. Advice, tips, and life hacks all make for interesting and engaging content, especially (but as alluded to earlier, not exclusively) if it appeals to broad, universal interests such as cooking or cleaning.

The value in this for virality lies in its potential to improve our own lives. We all want a shortcut or easy way out, and content that is helpful or useful (in whatever form) taps in this innate need.

If the advice is new and presented in a clickbait way, it’ll encourage social shares as a result of the perceived hype. Even if the information isn’t that useful, its novelty piques followers’ interest and compels them to engage and share regardless.

Creating viral content is about more than just crafting a video that contains all the qualities listed above. It’s about promotional methods, format type, and other myriad factors. The above qualities should form part of a wider content promotion strategy that, while not guaranteeing virality, certainly increases the likelihood of your content getting shared far and wide.

Written by MicroStartups for exclusive use on

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