The idea of contagion is nothing new. As far back as the written word can be found, theories have abounded as to how diseases spread between organisms. It wasn’t until germ theory was ultimately confirmed in the 1860s by Louis Pasteur, however, that we collectively grasped how it works. We lived for millennia with an understanding that disease transmission happened, but it took an awful long time for us to know why.
Fast forward to the digital age and you find a community again wrestling with the question of contagion—just in a different context. When we speak of content “going viral” on the Web, practically everyone grasps the concept. And if you’re a marketer, you can probably think of a piece of content or two you’d love to see explode in popularity across the Web. Do you know enough about why people share to know how to make it happen, though?
I’ll get it out of the way now: There’s no magic formula that will definitely make your content go viral. Just like there is no magic formula that will definitely make people remember it. But just as there are empirically validated ways to make content stick in the minds of your audience—read Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die for excellent insight here—there are also proven methods of increasing the likelihood that your content will be shared. Perhaps you can’t ensure your content’s virility, but you can certainly give it a fighting chance with a little knowledge.
The authoritative text on social sharing at the moment is Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On—recently named the Best Book in Marketing for 2014 by the American Marketing Association Foundation. In the book, Berger explains that there are basically six core reasons that we all share content—whether we realize it or not—and being mindful of these causes is your best bet at increasing the reach of your messages. The reasons we share can best be remembered by the acronym STEPPS, which breaks down as follows:
Social Currency: People often share things because it makes them look knowledgeable and “cool”. As social creatures, we inherently care how we look to others, and appearing “in-the-know” is valuable. If you’ve ever seen Fight Club, you know that “the first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.” While this was also the second and third rule, everyone who knew of Fight Club still told someone about it. People like to feel like insiders, and thus they’ll share information if it raises their social profile.
Triggers: Have you ever found yourself quoting that “Hump Day” commercial from Geico on a Wednesday? Have you ever tormented a friend or coworker by sending them a video of Rebecca Black singing “Friday” on a Friday? If so, you understand the concept of triggers. Some content is created specifically around an environmental trigger that will remind audience members of the content. The result? We see major spikes in sharing when those triggers are encountered.
Emotion: Cited also as driving us to remember ideas in Made to Stick, emotions are powerful drivers of sharing. Not all emotions are created equally in this regard, however. Berger and colleagues cycled through several theories before realizing that it isn’t necessarily “positive” or “negative” emotions that make people share, but emotions that create a high level of arousal. Think awe, excitement, amusement, anger and anxiety, not contentment or sadness.
Public: Berger uses the phrase “built to show, built to grow” in his description of the “public” phenomenon. Basically, the more visible something is by design—think of games that encourage sharing of scores and awards, or the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge with its very public drenching videos—the more likely it is to be shared. As humans, we tend to imitate others and gravitate toward what is popular… after all, how can so many people be wrong? Similarly, if it seems like other people are turning away from something, you might, too.
Practical Value: If you’ve read up on content marketing whatsoever, you’ve probably got a handle on this one by now. If something is useful, it is more likely to be shared… a concept brands have raced to embrace in recent years. Berger cites the example of an unlikely YouTube star named Ken Craig—an 86-year-old man who explains concisely how to get clean ears every time while shucking corn. He’s only posted one video ever, but with 8 million+ views, I’d say he’s doing alright. Why? Because what he explains has practical value. It works.
Stories: Another concept that applies to why we both remember and share ideas is narrative formatting. People are far more likely to recall and share stories than they are a specific piece of information simply because it’s how we think. We all form internal narratives within our heads and have long been conditioned to share oral histories since time immemorial. We learn and relate through stories. Consider Subway’s use of Jared, the man who lost an enormous amount of weight by eating Subway consistently, in the company’s advertising—it was a story far more likely to be told than any statistic about nutrition.
Many, if not all of these reasons we share may seem intuitive once you think about them, but that doesn’t mean we always harness these concepts. While I certainly recommend reading Contagious to gain a fuller understanding of the nuances of what causes people to share, Berger has placed several helpful resources on his website to help you remember the STEPPS system—such as this quick reference guide—that can stand as an ongoing reminder to tweak your content to be more frequently shared. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the mastermind behind the next viral sensation soon enough.
The STEPPS model has changed the way I (and others in the AKHIA Optimization Team) approach content development. We hope it will help you, too. We’d love to hear your stories as you experiment with it!
Lukas Treu is Content Architect at AKHIA.