What Makes Ideas Go Viral?

Reading Time: 8 Minutes

Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business. According to Jonah, people don’t necessarily trust ads, but they do trust their friends. In fact, his research shows that word of mouth is 10 times more effective than advertising! (Jonah defines advertising as any message that comes from a company — delivered by a website, article, ad, phone call, email campaign, or other company channel — rather than from a peer.)

To help companies maximize the benefit of word of mouth, Jonah wrote Contagious: Why Things Catch On. The book breaks down 6 ways you can motivate people to share your product or message.

Social Currency

People will share your idea or product if it makes them look good.

On Instagram, for example, people are more likely to share a picture of a $100 sandwich than a $5 sandwich. The $100 sandwich makes them look cool.

Social currency is hugely important when selling cars, electronics, vacations, clothes, and food. It’s also important when selling business products, since businesses also want to maintain a sense of prestige.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. What do they want to convey about themselves to their friends or clients? How can you help your customers create that identity?

Status is only good if other people know about it. So when you create social currency, you create an opportunity for people to share and for your product or message to go viral.

LinkedIn leveraged social currency when they sent out a message to their top 5% of users telling them that they are among the top 5% of most influential users on the platform. Not surprisingly, people shared it.

The key, Jonah says, is to hep customers look “smart, special, and in-the-know.” In other words, give your customers a sense of exclusivity.

You don’t have to sell expensive products to create exclusivity.

Beyonce released an album with no advertising. Instead, she shared the the cover on Instagram so that her followers could be the first to break the news to their followers.

Coke allowed people to buy bottles with their friends’ names. They went a step further by inviting people to share their experiences sharing a Coke with #ShareaCoke. People responded by sharing more than half a million photos with the hashtag.


Triggers are at work when something familiar reminds you of a product.

Remember Rebecca Black’s “Friday” song? It remains viral because it has a great trigger. When Friday hits, people watch the music video, so it gets regular views every week.

Geico piggybacked off this idea with their ad, “Hump Day.” The ad shows a camel walking around an office asking, “Guess what day it is?” No surprise, the ad gets a lot of shares on “hump day” Wednesday.

Grocery stores use triggers. When stores play Italian music, they sell more Italian wine; when they play French music, they sell more French wine. Similarly, stores can trigger people’s behavior with fast or slow music. Fast music encourages people to move quickly and buy less; slow music encourages people to move slowly and buy more.

Ad agencies love to use triggers to help customers associate products with their clients’ brands.

  • Kit Kat had declining sales, so their agency decided to present Kit Kat bars next to coffee in their ads. This triggered people to think of Kit Kats when they drink their daily coffee.
  • Corona’s agency decided to make beach vacations (or daydreaming about beach vacations) into a trigger to pick up a Corona beer. Three decades later, the trick still works for millions of Corona fans.

Who do you want to trigger? When do you want to trigger them? What ideas and objects are around your customers on the day and time you want to trigger them? How can you establish a link to those ideas and objects?


People want to share when they have strong emotions. This works for positive emotions like awe, happiness, and surprise, as well as negative emotions like anger, fear, and disgust. However, it doesn’t work for sadness. People just don’t want to share what makes them sad. You can find emotions in advertising everywhere! You can put a positive spin on negative emotions by delivering a positive message like Always did with their #LikeAGirl campaign. Contrast is key for emotional impact, and studies show that ads with contrasting emotions drive more social shares than ads with a single emotion. It’s crucial to double down on what works and eliminate ineffective campaigns. To make this easier, it’s recommended to implement procedural knowledge. By developing clear triggers, conducting A/B testing, and tracking the results of deployed campaigns, it becomes significantly easier to streamline new campaigns.

In our interview with the author of Talk Like TED, Carmine Gallo said that the best arguments use all 3 of Aristotle’s persuasion techniques: logos, pathos, and ethos (logical arguments, emotional appeals, and authority). Of these, emotion-based arguments are the most likely to get stuck in people’s minds, influence how they think, and encourage them to share your message.

At the heart of using emotion in marketing is the need to understand human behavior. What do people care about? What will inspire emotion?

To better understand your target customer’s behavior, try an exercise from Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick. Write down behavioral, buying, or social media sharing patterns you observe in your target customers. Write down why you think they’re behaving this way. Next ask “why is this important?” Write down your answer, then ask the same question again. Repeat this process one more time. After 3 iterations, the emotion fueling people’s behavior should become apparent. You can use the information you uncover to craft messages that resonate with your target customers.

Public Visibility

People’s actions are determined by what “everyone else” is doing. As Jonah says, “When it’s easy to see, it’s easy to imitate.”

To make use of this principle, think about how you can help your target market see when your existing customers are using your product.

  • Apple makes their logo noticeable on their devices so people can see it when they use their products. The brand logo is transparent on the device, but the embossed effect makes it stand out on the back of metallic appliances.
  • Starbucks prominently features their logo on cups so people can see when you drink their coffee.
  • Uber emails their customers vouchers for free rides that they can share with their friends.
  • Companies that invest in vinyl decals for their company vehicles help people in a community see when customers use their service.
  • Startups that make company t-shirts for employees (and have their owners and executives wear them too) raise awareness and stimulate word-of-mouth about their companies.

One caution here: Make sure you also build meaningful relationships with your customers so that they want to show their friends that they use your products. Without a strong relationship, customers may hide your logo design or promotional elements.

When you make your product more public, you facilitate conversations about your brand. According to Jonah, less than 10% of word-of-mouth is online; most word-of-mouth is still face-to-face. Even in business-to-business sales, 91% of new business leads come from existing business. One of the simplest ways to trigger these valuable face-to-face conversations is to ensure people see your customers using your products and services.

The next best option is to show your product with a call-to-action like a phone number. This is the type of marketing you see when vehicles drive by with custom car stickers promoting a local business.

Practical Value

For strong word of mouth, it’s important to offer products and services that help customers get the results they want. This is why marketers often emphasize practical value in product videos.

To show that you’re a results-oriented company, emphasize benefits over features, and add plenty of case studies and social proof. This will guide people to see that they’re better off buying from you versus your competition.

In the Internet age, it’s easier than ever for people to share, discover, and flock to a new business, while leaving behind one they used to visit. Today it’s more important than ever to establish unique ways you can differentiate your product or service from your competition, and communicate your unique value to your customers. If your product is easy for another business to replicate, make sure you keep innovating to stay ahead.

Value isn’t just about the results you deliver to customers. It’s also about the price your customers pay for the results they’re buying.

On social media, people are more likely to like, comment, and share a sale when it’s surprising, limited by time or quantity, or especially impressive.

Offline, people are more likely to share a company’s offers when they can invite their friends…

  • to a store to catch a great sale
  • to a restaurant for happy hour
  • to an event for a discount day (like $5 movie Tuesdays)
  • to use a product with a worthwhile referral discount

Remember, sales don’t have to cut into your profit margin. They simply need to alter your customers’ perception of the practical value they’re getting from their purchase. You can sell a quality leather belt for $20. Or you can sell it for $32 so long as you discount it by 50% from a retail price of $64.

Some successful businesses have found they don’t need to offer sales and discounts. Trader Joe’s and Apple both compete using other differentiators to offer customers practical value.

However, when your product isn’t wildly different from your competition, you’ll likely benefit by offering sales. Take some free wisdom that JC Penney lost billions learning: For most businesses, good sales are an important way to get customers in the door and spending money (preferably with a friend or two).

For advanced pricing and sales techniques, check out our free guide, “Pricing and Sales Techniques to Get Customers to Buy.” In addition to discussing sales techniques, the guide covers how you can frame your offers to get more sales without lowering your prices.


Jonah calls stories a Trojan Horse. They’re sneaky and effective.

People generally won’t share features with their friends. (“Did you see that the Blendtec blender has 1,575 watts of power? Crazy!”)

However, people will share stories. (“Did you know you can blend an iPhone? Check out this video!”)

To tell great stories, you need to put yourself in your customers’ minds. What would they realistically get excited about and share?

Brainstorm with your team. Don’t throw out any ideas just because they seem crazy. Then review all the ideas your team came up with. Look for story ideas that you could realistically see your audience getting excited about.

Blendtec makes a video series called “Will It Blend?” In the videos, the Blendtec CEO blends products like an iPhone X and Thunder Snaps.

Putting tech products in blenders probably sounded crazy when someone first proposed it. Recipe videos and product demos likely would have seemed safer. But that’s what all of Blendtec’s competition were doing! The market was saturated.

Putting an iPhone in a blender was interesting. Thankfully, Blendtec took a chance on the idea. With a budget of less than $1,000, they released their first video. … And it worked. According to Jonah, Blendtec’s videos resulted in a 700% increase in sales!

To be effective, your stories needs to be surprising. To create surprise, you need to craft a beginning (“will it blend?”), middle (“let’s test it!”) and end (“yes, by God, it blends”). Even in a short video, this traditional three-act structure is effective.

There’s one last critical ingredient: Your product needs to be an important part of the story.

There are a lot of commercials that tell effective stories, but the products they advertise are not crucial to those stories. You can easily talk about the ad without ever mentioning the product. These types of ads are effective stories, but not valuable for promoting your brand.

The blender videos work because you can’t tell the story without mentioning the blender. Jonah Berger cites the Panda yogurt commercials as another positive example. You just can’t tell the story of what you saw in these commercials without bringing up the panda!


People trust other people. When people hear companies speak to them through advertising channels (whether ads, email, web, or something else), they assume the companies are just trying to sell to them. However, when people hear messages from their friends and family, they believe their network is simply sharing cool stuff or meaningful stories without any ulterior motive.

Are you ready to make YOUR ideas go viral? Review this list of 6 viral levers. Write down 20 ideas for how you can apply these principles in your business! If you could use extra guidance, check out Jonah Berger’s free workbook.

I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

Join our list for exclusive tips, content and a welcome gift – our ebook on how to engage your team and boost profits.