Understanding Viral Marketing & Social Media Optimization


Is there a recipe behind creating the perfect post?

What makes people click Like and Share? What are the ingredients to these viral posts that get thousands of likes, shares, and comments from across the globe? What is physically making these posts go viral?

As we examine this question, it’s important to understand that a viral strategy is not a marketing plan, and closer to a marketing anomaly. However, understanding the science behind viral marketing and its application is undoubtedly beneficial to any social strategy.

“A viral strategy is not a marketing plan, and closer to a marketing anomaly”

To cover the basics, a viral post essentially comes down to engagement. Every time someone engages with a post, such as liking it, or commenting on it, it will show up in their newsfeed, which will in turn make that post visible in their friends’ newsfeeds, allowing them to do the same as well. Get enough people to engage under the right conditions and BOOM; it will gain exponential momentum into a viral state, in a way similar to a chain reaction. Of course, advertising campaigns and paid media can have a great influence on viral momentum. However, for the purpose of this article, we will focus strictly on organic techniques.

Social Media Optimization

A post, in essence,  is considered viral when it successfully establishes a connection to its audience in large numbers during a short period of time. There are different opinions on where these numbers begin; some say in the thousands, others in the tens-of-thousands. Regardless, the structure and distribution tactics of your post will play an important role in boosting it into these numbers of popularity.

Being that the reactive environment of social media is largely unpredictable; it’s beneficial to understand it as a living organism. There lies a capricious element in social networks similar to the Chaos Theory; i.e. unpredictability in complex systems.  That said, understanding the science behind a viral post will not guarantee success, but it will give you the best chance of virally spreading your content in the fickle space of social media.

A Look at The Basics

Content is the life of every blog post and status update, and for an audience with an attention span of a goldfish, it’s important to drive the nail down with optimal verbiage and visual stimuli. Posts should have the ability to draw attention at a glance (most successfully done with a photo), increase curiosity, (as accomplished by Shock Headlines), maintain interest, and trigger an emotional impact. To begin understanding the dynamic variables in this formula, it’s helpful to analyze the concepts and examples that are outlined in this article.

Shock Headline

Shock Headline

Informational Headline

Informational Headline

Awareness Headline

Awareness Headline

Observing the ideal length of posts, analysts tend to differ in opinion between a short and a lengthy post. Professors from the University of Pennsylvania have reported a correlation between wordy posts and a high number of Shares, reported  in their publication: What Makes Online Content Viral? However, some of the most viral Facebook photos only sported a short sentence or two but still managed to wing in more than two million thumbs up votes from users. Looking at the big picture, the length of a post ideally depends on the subject being discussed and the intent of the user being targeted.

That said, posts with photos almost always achieve a higher reach and more engagement. This in mind, always try to posts with pics, even if your purpose is only posting a link to a webpage. In the below study, notice the 6x increase in engagement when the same URL is posted in the description of a photo (Example: A), over a plain URL snippet generated by facebook (Example: B).

facebook link with image

(Example: A)

Only facebook link

(Example: B)

Basic Principles of Posting

If your goal is to generate shares:

  • Post on topics related to the brand or niche
  • Use photos, photos albums and videos
  • Insert tiny links to more info

If your goal is to generate likes:

  • Post on topics related to the brand or niche
  • Post a clear call to action, for example Like this if…

If your goal is to generate comments:

  • Post on topics related to the brand or niche
  • Ask a question in the post
  • Insert a photo that has been photoshopped with a question

The Secret Ingredient 

Even in a world where people can chat away when they’re seven oceans apart, it’s always a good point to remember that your audience is still made up of humans. A post that sounds like it’s been taken out from a textbook on advanced quantum physics has a great probability of not being shared, let alone read. Most viral posts have one thing in common: emotion.

Social media posts that highlight strong emotions are more likely to go viral versus posts that are written in a highly academic manner. No matter how professional your topic may be, there’s always a way to inject some emotion and personality into your post without overlooking the essence of your topic. Using emotions to tap into your audience’s attention is a way of telling them that you care, makes it feel more casual, and that it’s possible to establish a human connection between you and your readers.

why people use social networks

To accompany this point, it is noteworthy to mention that asking obvious opinions have a better chance of engagement than one that is equally opposed or makes you think. To exemplify, a question asking which you prefer, hot showers or cold showers will have more of a chance with engagement than a question asking who is better looking, Colin Farrell or Brad Pit. Shallow posts like these also have a better chance of engagement than more serious ones, like questioning the topic of abortion. Setting it up so your readers need only answer with one or two words, will be better engaged than one which requires a sentence.

How To Cook It

There was a time when Beyonce’s halftime Superbowl photos became an instant sensation on the Internet, with some of the photos turning into Internet memes on some humor websites. Although it’s not really the good type of photos-gone-viral for Beyonce’s part, this example shows how Internet humor has the power to turn the tables. Capitalizing on memes during the time they are hot, is a way to become picked up by the viral wave. In other words, if a topic is going viral collectively, you can use some of it’s clout for a better chance of a viral boost. It’s interesting how memes itself are formed, and the clever guys at Know Your Meme offer some great insights on this, as well as resources on what the hot memes currently are.

A study carried out on advertisements from Fortune 500 companies pointed out that humor has become a universal approach in creating viral content, seeing as almost all of the viral ads in the study have injected humor into their approach. Although humor is not necessarily the fail-proof approach towards a successful viral post, it offers an interesting and creative way to market your brand and leave a positive impact on your audience, as long as it’s executed in the right way.

TGIF Social Media Post

Google Social Media Post
i phone you tube

Most audiences also tend to share posts that they think have a practical use or value to them and their circles. For instance, infographics that explain complex ideas in a nutshell are more likely to be shared compared to lengthy and boring text posts. Anything that gives the readers value, either information or something more tangible, is sure to go viral on as people can see that your post is more than just an advertisement. Be sure not to constantly link back to your own website in your social media posts. In fact, the less you do this, the better. People will feel less threatened about alternative motives behind the post and welcome it as more genuine, increasing potential engagement.

Kevin Mero, president of PharmacyWeek has done an amazing job building his fan base. His successful social media strategy has even attracted followers outside of his pharmacy niche, due to his engaging tactics. The PharmacyWeek Facebook Page is a great cross-section to observe what does and doesn’t work.


paceblo facebook post

smarter facebook post
my bed facebook post


link facebook post
comic facebook post

An analysis of PharmacyWeek’s above posts confirms that following some of these basic rules greatly contributes to a recipe of success. Note that their winning posts demonstrate clear messaging that can be easily retained, with relatable content that is fun to share. While observing their losing posts, it’s worth pointing out that, while their comic isn’t half bad, it most likely lacked engagement because too much text cant be absorbed and appreciated in less than a second (or a thumb flick).

Digesting The Facts

As mentioned above, content and posts can go viral if they are timely and relevant to the issues and trends that are circulating on social media. Current events also play an important part in determining the timeliness of the content. Next to the fuel of your intuition, online tools will be the powerful engine to drive you content far and wide. New tools are springing up daily to help you adapt to the rapidly shifting shapes of social media. Inmotion provides an excellent overview of the tools and systems of the trade, in their SMO Periodic Table.

SMO Tools and services

Looking into audience groups and focusing on specific target audiences greatly helps your posts go viral. For example, if you’re posting a funny comic strip that baseball fanatics can relate to, there’s a greater probability that it will go viral within a short span of time if appropriately targeted. This can be done by sharing your post within relevant Fan Pages, Circles, etc. Obviously, people like to share things that are representative of their options and persona, so this is a great way to build momentum with your strategically thought out post.

Where To Post Your Content Flowchart

Flowchart about what social media network to post on

Putting It All Together

Do you feel overwhelmed yet? You’ll be fine! Post consistently while keeping these fundamental concepts in mind and your social media instincts will begin to flourish.

  1. Choose Topics People Care About
  2. Rethink your Headline
    • Increase interest, curiosity and shareability by injecting attitude into your title. Buzzfeed has mastered the art of shock-headlines and getting people to click.
  3. Make Posts Skimmable
    • If your post is not designed in a way that makes it easy to quickly grasp the key points, they won’t bother to skim it or share it.
  4. Don’t Skimp on Graphics or Pictures
    • The visual elements are critical to getting attention for your post in social media, to communicating the key message, and often can make or break the social sharing of a post.
  5. Improve Ease of Sharing
    • If you want people to share your posts, you need to position social share buttons right where any reader will find them. Use the KISS principle and never make your audience have to put thought in taking action.
  6. Avoid Being Selfish
    • Do not expect people to share your content if you’ve never lifted a finger (or clicked your trackpad) to comment on, like or share other people’s content. You’ll be amazed with how far taking interest in other people will bring you.

Referencing back to the Chaos Theory analogy mentioned above, I don’t believe there is one definitive answer or equation that will guarantee a post to go viral because of variables such as topics trending, accurate niche targeting, relevant memes, etc. In fact, chances are usually slimmer than many hope. When realistically examined, it is not very often that a average person will typically engage. Even if it is a perfectly written post and linked to an amazing article, only a small percentage of people will act with engaging behavior.  However, understanding the basic elements outlined in this article provides you with a great head start. Give your audience a campaign that is worth paying attention to, and let them do the rest of the work.

The Perfect Social Media Post Infographic

Infographic of Social Media Best Practices

About Author

Jourdan Rombough is a SEO Expert specializing in Website Visibility & Internet Strategy. He is an SEO Manager at MERKLE | IMPAQT, assisting Fortune 500 Companies with their visibility strategies. More...

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