Why do ideas go viral?

The concept that products, messages and behaviors spread in the same way as viruses is not a new one. The theory of memetics has been around for decades and recently spread through its own “word-of-mouth epidemic” started by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point. But as social media marketers, the question we struggle to answer is not whether ideas spread like viruses; it’s how to get them to do so?

In his latest webinar on the science of social media, Dan Zarrella explored that question. Through his social media research, Dan has found that ideas do not spread because they’re “good;” they spread because of a series of other factors, which can be explained through his “hierarchy of contagiousness”:

In order to “go viral,” an idea has to have exposure (your audience need to be exposed to the idea), attention (the idea needs to grab your audiences’ attention) and motivation (the idea needs to motivate your audience to act, i.e. share the idea).

Here are three tips from Dan’s research for optimizing the exposure, attention and motivation in your social media marketing efforts:


While we still believe engagement is critical to a successful social media marketing campaign, Dan’s research has found that publishing interesting content may play a more important role in increasing exposure:

  • Twitter: There is a correlation between Tweeting many links and having a high number of followers. However, when measuring engagement through Tweets starting with @replies, Dan found handles with more than 1,000 followers actually engage in conversation less often than their counterparts with fewer followers.
  • Blogs: Dan also found that there is no correlation between comments and links back to a blog post, or to the number of views a post receives.


In order to gain your audiences’ attention, it is important marketers do not crowd out their own content and that they use contra-competitive timing:

  • Twitter: When looking at click-through rates by links Tweeted per hour, Dan found that as users crowd out their own content with multiple links, they garner less attention (measured by click-throughs) per piece of content.
  • Facebook: In regards to timing, Dan found there is actually an uptick in Facebook shares per day on Saturdays and Sundays, because less content is shared on these days and many workplaces block Facebook from their employees.


When trying to motivate people to share your content, remember that scarcity, simplicity and calls to action make a difference:

  • Twitter: When looking at “word novelty” in ReTweets, Dan found that ReTweets tend to contain much rarer words. At the same time, Tweets that say “Please ReTweet” are ReTweeted four times more than posts without a direct call to action.
  • Facebook: Posts that have nouns or verbs in the title are shared more frequently than those with adverbs or adjectives. Similarly, as the reading grade level increases, the frequency of shares decreases. So, simple content is more likely to motive your viewers.

More information on Dan Zarrella’s “Hierarchy of Contagiousness” can be found in his e-book available on Amazon.


What other factors have you seen influence when content reaches its “tipping point”?


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