6 Insider Secrets to Viral Marketing (Plus Bonus Tips!)

Julie Ewald
Julie Ewald

Last updated on

February 8, 2023

What does it take to go viral? Is there some formula you can follow to ensure that your blog posts or YouTube videos achieve viral status?

I hate to break it to you, but no.

There’s no secret formula to viral marketing. However, there are a number of marketing strategies you can use to optimize the shareability of your content. Think of it this way: content optimization strategies are fertilizer and your content is a plant. You can give your content the nutrients it needs to grow, but whether it flourishes (goes viral) depends on a host of other factors like:

  • Timing: Is your content aligned with current trends, holidays, or news?
  • Audience: Getting your content in front of the people who are most likely to share it is key
  • Dumb luck

But you can give your content a fighting chance at going viral! There are certain "viral marketing" strategies and techniques that give you far better odds.

My team and I talked to a TON of content marketing experts about this very topic. They helped us identify six secrets to viral marketing, and lucky you -- we’re not keeping them to ourselves!

capitalize on controversy and shock value image: two business men playing tug of war

1. Capitalize on controversy and shock value

When we asked Ana Hoffman from Traffic Generation Cafe for her #1 viral marketing tip, she reminded us that people love to share controversial content:


And no, I am not referring to the cheap 'doomsday' kind of a squabble, but something that stimulates a discussion, makes readers evaluate their own views and/or take sides.

Controversy could be as subtle as offering an opposing opinion.

Take my latest post on content repurposing, for instance. Of all the facts you can learn about content repurposing, of all the quotes from various content marketing experts showcased in the post, the one that stands out and gets shared the most is Chris Brogan's thoughts on how little he thinks of content repurposing. That quote alone (especially when shared as an image) has inspired endless discussions about the benefits and the pitfalls of content repurposing (which I refer to as 'recontent') across social media networks.

A touch of controversy almost ensures the post goes viral. The only missing ingredient would be you, the content creator, masterfully kindling the fire.

Adam Proehl from NordicClick echoes the sentiment:

Understand what will likely trigger an extreme emotional response (joy, fear, anger, guilt, etc.) from your target audience...it's what'll ultimately get the share.

Along the same lines as controversy, shock value can drive content to become viral. Joe Youngblood gives great examples:

Think about the most outrageous, ridiculous thing you can do that would appeal to your target demographic:

Red Bull sponsors extreme sports and events all over the world; they sent a guy to the edge of space to dive back down to Earth.

Amazon is an online retail website that markets partially to technology geeks; they built a delivery drone and announced it between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Tesla markets to forward-thinking people and gave away the patents to their electric car charging technology to highlight their dedication to green technology.

Each of these companies pinpoints their target markets and plans surprising campaigns, events, and announcements that they know will interest customers. And guess what? Seems like it’s working.

set yourself apart from fake news: illustrated interview

2. Set yourself apart from fake news

We all know how shareable “fake news” can be. In fact, it seems like content with sensational headlines and clickbait titles gets shared more readily than true stories. But don’t let that dissuade you from creating helpful, credible content as part of your plan for viral marketing.

You might have noticed that alongside their pithy quizzes, viral geniuses Buzzfeed also frequently feature experts in their articles and YouTube videos. Razvan Girmacea at Monitor Backlinks tells us this is for good reason: by featuring subject matter experts, you broaden your potential audience to include theirs, too.

Not only might the expert share the feature with their fans, but social media algorithms might also recommend your content to people who follow the expert but don’t follow you.

problem solver viral marketing tip: guy with an idea

3. Be a problem-solver

If you’ve spent any time in the content marketing biz, someone will have advised you that your content should solve a problem for your readers. Take it from Marko Saric of How to Make My Blog:

My #1 tip for creating viral-worthy content is to put yourself in the shoes of your target audience first.

Your content needs to answer questions that real people are asking. It needs to be better, more educational, more informative, more entertaining, and easier to understand than anything else that's available in the search results or that's shared on social media.

If you're creating content about things that nobody is interested in, it will be impossible for your content to go viral.

Bill Slawski from Go Fish Digital explains how to find out what, exactly, your audience wants to know. He says to find out where your audience gathers on the web and listen to their questions and comments that pertain to your business so you can understand which knowledge gaps to fill with your content.

Slawski makes a great point -- there’s no need to guess what information people are after. Find out where their discussions happen and get your content inspiration straight from the source.

Mark Traphagen even suggests taking it to the next level by anticipating a need instead of meeting one:

Use proprietary data to answer a question nobody knew they wanted to ask. This combines the high-interest level of unique data with the emotional element of surprise.

An example is our "mobile vs. desktop usage" study. The surprise is that while more searches are done on mobile overall now, desktop still wins for some important niches. That's become our most linked-to and visited post of the year because it uses data to present a non-intuitive conclusion.

When you make people say to themselves "I never would have guessed that!" then they are going to want to share that with others. Media loves those kinds of stories too.

viral marketing tap into trends: illustrated woman with tablet with clickbait headlines

4. Tap into trends

YouTube challenges are a great example of how to make copycatting work for you. Think of the Cinnamon Challenge, Ice Bucket Challenge, or the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge. Understandably, some of our experts recommend keeping an eye on what’s trending so you can emulate it.

Take it from Joe Hall of Hall Analysis:

Understand what works by looking at what has gone viral in the past. You can do this by looking at the top posts on sites like Reddit or Buzzsumo.

And the always humorous Ryan Jones chimed in to say:

Find out what your competitors are doing and do something similar. For example, you can understand what works by looking at what has gone viral in the past. You can do this by looking at the top posts on sites like Reddit or Buzzsumo.

And I would like to add that you should indeed examine past viral trends and content from competitors that have performed well. But then you don’t want to do something that’s similar -- you want to do something better! You can do this by looking at the top posts on sites like Reddit or Buzzsumo. (Ok, I’m almost done, I swear.)

Seriously though, in the words of Jesse McDonald, you need to be “original within a current ‘hot topic.’”

Narrow your topic_ viral marketing: magnifying one person out of many

5. Narrow your target

Not everything can be a widespread viral phenom like Psy’s Gangnam Style. Some content may only go viral within a certain niche or community, and that’s okay. In fact, marketing pro (and redhead) Jenny Halasz recommends that you lean into that fact:

Take a leaf out of Buzzfeed’s book and target a narrow part of the population. For example, I always share the stories and videos Buzzfeed does about redheads.

To figure out where to narrow your content, you likely need to do some behavioral targeting. This starts by having well-defined personas made up, and then narrowing your focus down to the most valuable audience personas for your product or service.

don't get discouraged viral marketing: Sad illustrated man

6. Don’t get discouraged

As we touched on earlier, there are many factors that can influence whether content spreads like wildfire or completely flops. Because of this, Melissa Fach of SEO Aware reminds us not to get discouraged:

There is no guarantee of viral; often it is accidental. So, if it doesn't work the first, second, or even tenth time, don't give up.

Something else to remember is that often, viral content is completely manufactured. Content with a little money behind it can go far. Heck, the surest thing in viral marketing is paid promotion. As Jamie Low puts it:

Be wary of the cargo-cult approach to creating "viral" content; it takes a great deal of "behind the scenes" PR work to reach the tipping point where it will spread organically on its own.

Lay the groundwork for your campaign by making connections and developing partnerships that will help you promote your piece to influencers that already have their own networks.

BONUS TIPS: viral marketing -- business man coming out of a top hat

Viral marketing bonus tips

Viral content is exciting content, and nothing brings excitement like debating a new idea disrupting complacent incumbent ideas. Add a breaking news data point, or a friendly debate, and get the popcorn ready for the ensuing show,

- Navah Hopkins, WordStream

The content must tell a story. If you can work in proprietary data and have some killer graphics to assist it’s even better. When you solve the problem, answer the question or make people think ... they will share. Make it easy to consume. We are so “what’s next” these days. You must present the information in a way that keeps them interested long enough to want to share it with friends too.

- Matt Siltala, Avalaunch

Use your proprietary data.

- Kenny Hyder

Have a hook. Whether it's humor, shock, fear, sadness, education, terror, or whatever, have a hook - and then use paid social to amplify visibility.

- Scott Hendison, Search Commander

So, got any other promising viral marketing techniques? We’re all ears!

Author Bio

Julie Ewald

Julie Ewald thought she was going to be a poet and professor. Instead Julie is a driven digital marketer who specializes in content strategy and creation for personal brands, consultancies, and unique tech companies. She is also the digital nomad at the helm of Impressa Solutions, the all-remote marketing agency she founded in 2012.

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