How to Create Viral Content: The 6 “STEPPS” to Success

For many people, the first things that come to mind when they hear “viral content” are memes and cat videos.

By definition, however, viral content is any content that gains popularity through social sharing. This can be anything from visual content, to video how-tos, to informational articles. So, while fainting goats and sports fails are good for a laugh, you should also be thinking about how social sharing can help make your branded content a major success. The most successful brands know that social is a key component of branded content, with 73% of all branded content reads coming from Facebook alone.

But what makes this content go viral? Is it luck, or is viral content something that can be created? At Pressboard, we love finding expert advice that aligns with our own beliefs about what makes content really stand out — and then sharing that with our readers.

This is exactly what we found in the work of Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on social influence. He did the hard work for us and analyzed thousands of pieces of viral content to understand what compels people to share it. He published the “secret formula” to viral content in his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

Berger reveals that the success of viral content can be attributed to just six elements, or “STEPPS”: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value and stories. Let’s break down these STEPPS to learn how they can be applied to your next sponsored content campaign.

Social Currency

Social currency pertains to the trends that are happening in the reader’s environment. It’s less about the trend itself, however, and more about the idea that a person’s social status is dependent on the information they have. Everybody wants to be the in-the-know friend who always has great recommendations. Because of this, the most valuable content is content which can be shared.

You can use social currency to create quality and innovative content that excites your readers, or even to become a trendsetter in your industry. Think about your audience — who are they trying to impress? Once you determine that, you can create content that’s valuable to them. It’s better to create something high-quality, like a thought leadership piece that your readers will want to share, instead of trying to hop on the latest fad ­— so don’t worry about rallying the office next time there’s a viral dance trend.

Triggers

A trigger is a word, phrase or image associated with a message. Ultimately, anything that reminds your audience of your product or brand is a trigger. Having great, consistent branding will create positive triggers that are easy to remember for readers. This is why it’s so important to choose the right partnerships when creating sponsored content. Making sure the content creators you work with have positive triggers that align with your own values translates to more shareable, contagious content because the readers will remember it!

Emotion

The third element in Berger’s viral formula is emotion. Not surprisingly, people share things that they care about. Emotions of awe and excitement drive people to share content, which means you should probably avoid anything that’s sad or negative. Words like “cost” or “damage” tend to prompt negative emotions. Instead, use snappy trigger words like “easy” or “new” and pepper your content with exclamation points.

Choosing your audience — and knowing them — is important in your quest to create viral content. What will excite your readers? Creating audience-centric pieces that they care about is the best way to engage them.

Public

Berger uses the phrase “built to show, built to grow” to describe the public element in his six STEPPS. Keep this mantra in mind when creating content. Public events and news (think announcements or current events) generally fare better than promotional content, but a public element can be applied to more informational pieces, too! Ask yourself: is there anything that would stop your reader from sharing this article? Sensitive topics, polarizing opinion pieces, NSFW content and unrelated information are all things which can turn your readers off from sharing. Always create content that your audience can proudly share.

Practical Value

Apart from being in-the-know, people also want to be helpful with the information they share. Content which has practical value should be relevant and full of information. Consider your audience’s interests or pain points. What questions do they have? What information might they be looking for? For example, if you know your target audience is made up of recent graduates who are looking to buy a vehicle, offer tips on car maintenance or answer frequently asked questions about purchasing a new car. This not only encourages sharing but facilitates better engagement in terms of time spent on a page. Content that can be returned to multiple times and used as a resource will remain valuable for years to come.

Stories

Great storytelling is the key to great content marketing. Information is absorbed best when it’s incorporated into a story because stories can actually change how we think and feel — it’s science. Coming up with great branded content ideas that tell a story is the best way to deliver a message. Give your reader fuel for lunch room conversation or chats by the coffee machine. Ensure that your brand is integral to the story, but bring your reader or viewer into it, too. Make your audience the hero of the story and they will re-tell it over and over again.

When content goes viral, it may seem like luck or chance — but in reality, these six STEPPS are the key. Which of Berger’s tips are you already implementing into your branded content campaigns? Even including a few of them will increase the shareability of your content. Implement these steps in your next campaign and you can save the cat videos for your free time. You just might have the next viral campaign on your hands.

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