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The Secret Sauce for Creating Viral Content

Every business wants more eyeballs on their products or services. So- what is this secret recipe for creating content that goes viral? Why does some content spread, and some not? We looked at three different respected marketing theories to figure out the secret sauce.

A person setting up their phone on a tripod with a ring light


Three of the most popular theories can be separated into two philosophies: messages and influentials. Jonah Berger’s STEPPs theory falls into the ‘messages’ philosophy, whereas Malcolm Gladwell’s Network Characteristics and Seth Godin’s People Characteristics fall under the ‘influentials’ philosophy.

STEPPs stands for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories. Together, these make up the message characteristics. Social trends pertain to the idea that someone’s social status is dependent on the information they have; that is to say, they’re keeping up with the trends. Triggers are simply anything that reminds someone of a product or brand. For example, the phrase ‘just do it’ will likely remind people of Nike, and a particular red may remind people of Coca Cola. Emotion relates to the idea that people share things they care about. Particularly things that make them feel positive emotions such as excitement. Public refers to the concept that you want to create something that your audience will feel proud to share. Practical value is exactly what it sounds like- including information in your content that is helpful to your audience, and information that they would then like to pass on to others. The final element of the STEPPS model is Stories. Stories describes the art of storytelling, and how telling a story is the best way to deliver a message. Storytelling also allows you to incorporate your audience so that it feels more personal and therefore share-worthy.

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point- a bestselling marketing book where Gladwell explains what makes a message spread through structured rules.

  • Rule #1: The Law of the Few This rule discusses the importance of the messenger- people who are able to spread ideas. Gladwell divides these people intro three different types: the connectors, the mavens and the salespeople. Connectors have large networks, mavens share knowledge, and salespeople are charming and persuasive.

  • Rule #2: The Stickiness Factor Rule number two focusses on the message itself. ‘Stickiness’ refers to the messages ability to stick. That is, to be memorable and share-worthy. Gladwell explores how messages can be packaged in different ways so that it is compelling or ‘sticky’.

  • Rule #3: The Power of Context The third and final rule addresses the context or environment of the message and messenger. As humans we are all familiar with how sensitive we can be to our environment. You will receive the exact same information differently when you are sitting in a movie theatre waiting for your movie to start, versus moving slowly through heavy peak-hour traffic when you were meant to be somewhere twenty minutes ago. You will also receive the exact same information differently from someone you have a positive perception of versus someone you have a not-so-positive perception of. This is the power of context.

Seth Godin explains that you could have the best idea since sliced bread- or the idea of sliced bread itself. However, to be successful, you need your idea to spread. It needs to be remarkable. Not just great, but worth making a remark about. Godin prefers to market to the innovators and early adopters. These days one may refer to this as niching down- the idea of speaking to the people who are listening. Essentially, this theory relates to the idea that remarkable (different, unique, innovative) ideas spread organically.


So which theory best describes the spread of ideas through social media?

Berger’s ‘STEPPs’ theory is heavily intertwined with social media. Afterall; Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories is social media. And while it may describe how to create decent content, and certainly important foundational elements, it doesn’t explain how ideas or messages go viral. We recommend using this theory to establish a basis for your content.

There are certainly elements of Godin’s ‘People Characteristics’ and his idea that a message should be remarkable in order to spread, particularly in relation to videos that go viral. However, this theory does not explain the hundreds of thousands of nano, micro, macro and mega influencers, as well as businesses, that produce the same or similar content. We recommend using this theory to spark remarkable content ideas.

Gladwell’s ‘Network Characteristics’ is arguably the most relevant theory to how ideas spread on social media. This is because it clearly defines the importance of the messenger, the message and the context- which will ultimately make or break the chances of your content going viral. Particularly when considering the influence of different social media platforms’ algorithms. Use this theory when creating your digital marketing plan, including which influencers you select (if any), your brand tone & voice, how you ‘package’ your message so that it sticks with your target audience, and the macro & micro context.

These theories explain what makes content go viral and are important to consider. However, the most important thing is to just start. Your chances of going viral are much higher when you actually put content out there. So just do it! You’ve got this.



Apr 18, 2023

Initially when looking at this post, I was overwhelmed, however intrigued by ‘the recipe’ of learning about the key ingredients which play into viral content being created. However, I found the findings presented in this post to be very articulate, along with suggestive to the audience, allowing the reader to identify the pure facts associated with the theories. In turn, allowing them to conclude their own opinion from the text.

I believe it could’ve been a bit more concise as opposed to going into such great depth about the authors. For example, when discussing Malcom Gladwell’s ‘the tipping point’ as “a best-selling marketing book explaining how a message spreads through structured rules’ was a bit unnecessary. Consequently, the insight did…

Bianca Mammone
Bianca Mammone
Apr 25, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much for your feedback! This is super helpful :)

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