The Ultimate Guide to Creating Viral Social Media Posts

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Everyone is aware of the fact that some posts that appear on social media are more popular than others. In fact some of them are really, really popular in that they end up attracting an audience far in excess of what might be expected, perhaps in the millions. Such widely shared posts are said to have “gone viral,” meaning that they have spread all over the World Wide Web, much like a virus might move throughout an entire organism.

The Elusive Formula

Marketers and promoters of every kind have studied and experimented for years to try to discover what it is that makes some social media posts go viral while the vast majority do not. Frankly, no one has ever successfully identified a step by step formula for creating a viral social media post. Yet, despite there not being any surefire way to make a post go viral, there are certain characteristics that viral posts have that non-viral posts do not. So while no viral formula exists, there are ways to increase the odds that any given post will go viral.

What Goes Viral

The first step is to recognize that there are no limitations on what can go viral. Videos are the best known type of viral posts, but that is because we can usually plainly see by their hit count how popular they are. But other forms of posting that do not typically come with a hit count can also fly around the internet by the millions. These include blog posts, forum discussions, charts, podcasts, graphics and pictures of all kinds. Every type of imaginable social media post has the potential to go viral, the trick is to find a way to trigger that higher level of consumer engagement.


If there is one characteristic that the majority of viral social media posts have in common, it is that they are mostly positive in their orientation. People generally don’t share downers. They like things that give them a mood lift and make a positive contribution to their online experience. There are exceptions to this, as we shall see, but in general, if you can inspire a positive, uplifting response with your social media post, then the chances of your post going viral are much higher. That is why so many viral videos are about people overcoming adversity, or are pictures of heroic characters from life or the cinema or quotes about persevering in life. People love to be encouraged and inspired.



There are also posts that go viral that are not necessarily positive in the sense that they inspire an uplifting mood. Some posts go viral because large numbers of people find them laugh out loud funny. Such viral humor is usually not in bad taste, meaning it doesn’t have a mean intention behind it or violate social taboos in an extreme way. The most viral forms of humor are those that suggest a widely known aspect about our life experiences to which most people can relate. Therefore babies, animals and scenes from the workplace are common themes of viral media posts that rely upon humor.


While most posts that are viral are positive or humorous in content, sometimes negativity will work if it is presented exactly right. A post that makes people angry about a certain situation or anxious about a possible threat can also go viral. Such posts are often political in nature, but they can also touch on a wide range of anxieties about possible calamities like bad health, social disintegration or economic failure. The key is that these political views or causes of anxiety must be widely held or at least be recognizable to the general public. Extreme political views or things that do not feel risky to most people will not result in a viral response. Negativity works only if it connects to mainstream sentiments.


People generally like to be surprised. However, they like those surprises to be mostly on the pleasant side. That is why a social media post that has a surprising twist that can make you smile will likely go viral. Most people do not like surprises that make them feel frightened, threatened or offended, so the goal is to surprise people with a post that will make them laugh, or at least smile. That is why most viral posts that rely on surprises are humorous, because a lot of jokes are based primarily on the premise of expecting one thing and instead encountering something different. The trick is to both surprise and delight, a one-two combination that will make many people want to share it with their friends.


A small but effective range of viral social media posts are those that inspire some degree of awe. This is a harder kind of viral post to launch because there is not so much agreement among people about what inspires awe. It may be a beautiful image, a video about an amazing event, scenes of nature, feats of human achievement and endurance, anything that the average person may respond to with feelings of awe. However, one person’s awesome can be another person’s bore, so this is a harder form to get to go viral. Yet, for that reason, if you succeed in coming up with something that is simply awesome, the chances of it going viral are very high.

Personal / Cool


Sharing social media posts also has a role in enhancing social standing. People like to be thought of as someone who knows what is cool and who will share that coolness with others. People want to be friends with such people, if only to gain access to their cool posts, which they can then send to friends to enhance their own coolness. People want to be part of the in-crowd, and sharing viral social media posts is one way to demonstrate that you are. Therefore, posts that suggest you know what is going on and what is hip will be picked up and shared by others wanting to demonstrate their own hipness. The subject of such posts often involve fashion or celebrities. Posts that have the characteristic of making the sharer look like that they are attuned to interesting people and things are more likely to go viral.


What all of these categories of viral social media posts have in common is that they have a high level of originality. A barely altered version of last year’s viral social media post is unlikely to succeed the second time around, with one exception, which is when a previously successful viral post is turned into a parody. In that case, the fact that everyone is already familiar with the post is a plus, because that familiarity becomes the basis for being able to laugh at a parody of it. However, with the exception of a clever parody, the primary rule of viral posting is maximum originality – the more original the better.

If you are not afraid to fail, and you have a positive idea for something inspiring, surprising, awesome and cool, or a negative idea for something provocative yet mainstream, then you just might succeed in creating something viral. The ultimate test is to post it.

Written by James Parsons

James Parsons

James Parsons is a blogger and marketer, and is the CEO of Pagelift. When he isn’t writing at his personal blog or for HuffPo, Inc, or Entrepreneur, he is working on his next big project.

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