8 ways to make a product or idea viral

What causes some products and ideas to take hold and become popular? Why are some stories shared more than others? What makes some things “viral”?

In this article we will find out what are the characteristics of a contagious message, what are the mechanisms that lead people to share ideas and products, and how to apply them to our products to make them – potentially – viral.

“Things” take hold and go viral?

There are many examples of things that “take hold”: examples of social epidemics, in which ideas, products, and behaviors have spread to the population. They start with a small group of individuals and spread, often from person to person, like a virus.

But why does this happen for some products, and not for others? In some cases these products are simply better than others. Sometimes it is the price that attracts us. Advertising often affects the popularity of a product, because we only buy something if we know about it. And what about ideas?

These explanations are not enough. Think of a YouTube video that reaches millions of views, or a baby name that becomes more popular than others.

To understand how it does something to become “viral” we must think not only of how it spreads, but what characteristics lead people to talk about it, and to share it with others.

There are six elements that contribute to the contagiousness of something, which we can summarize with the acronym STEPPS. These characteristics do not guarantee that our product or our idea will become viral phenomena, but they can contribute to their popularity.

Furthermore, not everything that goes viral contains each of these 6 characteristics, but generally we will find at least some of them, depending on the type of product / idea.

What makes us appear “in” and how we can use this factor to make our products more viral

What impression do we make on others when we talk about a product or idea? Talking to people close to us is one of the most primordial social operations, and it serves to establish our position within our group. If we talk to our friends about a beautiful place that few know, this will make us appear more interesting, and will give the impression that we are “in”, because we know something that is exclusive. This “value” that we get is called social currency  Social Currency

How can we take advantage of this social mechanism to make our products more attractive for sharing?

There are 3 steps:

1. Find what makes the product remarkable compared to others.
A product can be defined as remarkable when it is unusual, new, surprising or simply interesting. Notable things are an excellent source of social currency. If we can highlight these characteristics, people will want to talk about it.

2. Use the game mechanics.
What makes the activities we do enjoyable? We often compare ourselves to others, and this determines our “place” in the social group. Using social media to engage people, for example with a competition, can be a strong incentive towards sharing.

3. Make people feel like insiders.
If a person feels part of an exclusive group, they will want to share this experience because it will give them social value. One technique that is often used is that of scarcity. If our product is accessible in limited quantities, or only at certain times, or only to certain people, we will create a sense of exclusivity, which will lead people to want to talk about it.

What stimulates us to want to share a product with others

To talk about something and share it with others, we must have it in mind. And what does a product bring to mind? A trigger, or something, that is not an advertisement, which leads us to think about a specific product. Environmental stimuli affect what we think about, and therefore also what we talk about.

Associating a product or an idea with a stimulus that we find very often in everyday life will ensure that there are more opportunities to talk about our product. Obviously there are different types of stimuli, and some work better than others.

A characteristic of the stimuli that work best is their frequency. Associating our product with a stimulus that occurs several times a day (such as a coffee break) can assure us that people will be led to think often about our product. But frequency is not enough, we must also think about the strength of the stimulus. If we associate our product with the red color, for example, we will not have a strong stimulus, because red is associated with many other products.

The world around us is full of stimuli, so there are many possibilities to create connections, but we must consider the context. We must find stimuli that arise in those situations in which our product is attractive, and in which people can then talk about it and share it.

How we feel when we share something with others

As human beings, we are social animals: we love to share opinions and information, and our tendency to “gossip”, for better or for worse, shapes our social relationships. The popularity of social media is symptomatic of our need to share. One of the things that leads us to share something with others is the emotion that makes us feel.

A strong emotion, positive or negative, pushes us to want to share an article, or a video. But not all emotions have the same type of effect.

It is not easy to classify emotions: we can distinguish between positive and negative, but this is not the factor that leads us to share. If so, we would only share things that make us feel happy or ecstatic, neglecting everything that makes us sad, anxious or angry.

Recently, psychology has started talking about emotions based on a characteristic called  arousal  (a state of excitement, awakening). Some emotions, both positive and negative, have the ability to create a state of excitement in us, which is closely connected with our desire to share.

When we experience an exciting event, as well as a traumatic one, we have a tendency to want to share it with those around us.

Many marketing techniques tend to focus on facts and information, hoping that the public will assimilate and elaborate them carefully.

But the facts alone tend to be boring, and therefore not to grab attention. Emotions push us to laugh, cry, scream, in other words to  act. By using emotions that cause  arousal , we can make our product more stimulating, by encouraging people to talk about it and share it.

It is important that others see when someone uses one of our products

Another widespread social mechanism is that of imitation. If we see that many people do something, or buy a product, we are inclined to want to imitate them.

The key word here is “to see”. Psychologists speak of  social proof , or social proof, that mechanism that leads us to prefer what is preferred by the majority. Social influence has a huge impact on our behaviors, so understanding how to best use it can help us generate interest in our products.

Most products, ideas and behaviors are a private matter. From the websites we use, to our favorite brand of toothpaste, few things we exhibit in public. The obstacle therefore is to find a way of making public what is private. An excellent strategy is to design products that advertise themselves.

Whenever a person uses one of our products in public, he is advertising us. It is giving us visibility, which we have seen leads others to want to imitate. Even if we don’t have big budgets to advertise our products, good design can make a big difference.

Even after a product has been purchased, there are some elements, called  social residue , that can contribute to sharing. A reusable bag with our logo, a pen given during a fair or together with a purchase, will continue to pay attention to our brand, thus giving us visibility.

When we find something that we believe is valid, we decide to share it with others

People like to share practical and useful information. News that others can use. From time-saving tips on household chores to tips on discounts in supermarkets, sharing this information, even via email with people far away, is a way to maintain a social relationship and show others that we think about them.

When it comes to practical value, saving is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind. If we think a discount or offer is valid, we will be inclined to talk to someone who could benefit from it. A discounted product is certainly a type of useful and shareable information, but some offers seem better than others. On a price of 20 Euros, a discount of 5 € has a different effect than 25%, although they are identical. Another important concept to keep in mind is that of decreasing value. 5 € discount on 20 € are many, but on 2000 € they are negligible.

A good strategy to apply is the  100 rule.  If the price of a product is less than 100 (Euros, Dollars, Pounds), the discount expressed as a percentage will seem greater. Over 100, the discount expressed in currency has more effect.

How narrative becomes part of our need to share

Since humanity exists, man has loved to tell stories. We often use them to convey a message, with the difference that they are more engaging. If the story is structured well, people will want to hear it all, from start to finish. Even with all the entertainment options available to us today, we always return to the narrative structure to communicate.

Stories are shared for the same reasons that create word of mouth: some carry social currency, others have practical value. We are so used to telling stories that we do it even when it is not necessary. If we are doing a product review, for example, we will be led to do it through an anecdote, rather than offering simple facts.

Stories bring something with them, a lesson, a moral, or simple information. The fairy tales that we have passed down for centuries convey morals that help us understand the world. The stories we share every day usually convey practical messages.

Let’s try to compare the story a friend told us about the experience with a certain product, compared to the information we receive from advertising: which of the two do we believe most? If a manufacturer tells us that his product or service is better than the others, will we not be at least a little skeptical? After all, their goal is to sell us something. When someone tells us a story, however, we don’t question what he tells us.

If we tell a story related to a product, we don’t usually do it with the intent to advertise it. We want to talk about an experience, whether it’s ours or someone else’s. With our story, however, we inevitably also talk about the product, which remains intrinsically linked to it.

It is important, when we try to generate word of mouth, not to lose sight of  what  we want people to share. An extraordinary undertaking or an incredible fact, if it is not linked to our product, risks generating interest only towards the fact itself, leaving us and our product in oblivion.

The “formula” for virality

Any product or story can go viral if it contains at least some of the elements we talked about. Virality does not depend on a handful of “influencers” who, although they can help give us some visibility, do not generate that tam-tam that continues over time.

We can list the characteristics of virality, summarized in the acronym STEPPS, like this:

  • Social Currency – We share things that make us look good in the eyes of others. What are the features that make your product remarkable? Can you apply the game mechanics? Do your customers feel “insiders”?
  • Triggers – If we have something in mind, we’ll talk about it. What are the situations or things that make you think about your product? How can you associate your product with common and frequent situations?
  • Emotion – When something matters to us, we share it. Think about the emotions your product generates, and use them to stoke the fire of word of mouth.
  • Public – If it’s designed to be seen, it’s designed to grow. Think about the situations in which your product is used. How visible is it? Do you advertise yourself? Can you create behavioral residues so that your brand continues to be visible?
  • Practical Value – News that can be used. Does talking about your product help people help each other? How can you highlight the value of the product in order to stimulate others to talk about it?
  • Stories – Information travels in the midst of small talk. Can you insert your message or your product into a narrative that people will want to share? In addition to going viral, does history also have value for your product?


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