STEPS: The secret behind viral Facebook Posts

The secret behind why stories go viral

Did you see Oreo’s date with Cadbury on Valentine’s?

Recently I came across a case study from New Yorker that goes in-depth about reasons why stories go viral. You can read it here.

I want to draw the relevant content of the case to supplement the popular Contagious Content framework. At the end of the article, you will be able to reconcile these 2 school of thoughts and apply a winning formula to your content strategy.

I will not assume that you read the case above, so I will explain it briefly.

Note: This viral content framework is not exclusive to Facebook Marketing. In general, it also applies to social media copywriting. Applied concepts of the framework are bold. Read all the way till the end and you’ll find it rewarding, or you can bookmark this and come back another time.

Jonah Berger summarised the reasons why stories go viral as STEPS. In short, they are

  1. Social Currency
  2. Trigger
  3. Emotional Appeals
  4. Practical Value
  5. Story


STEPS: Social Currency

“Something that makes people feel that they are not only smart but also in the know.”

It’s human nature to want to look smart, especially in the eyes of people you respect or care about. People are inclined to share about something when they make them look good. And that is what social currency is all about - being looked up to by people you care about. A key part of social currency is also the perceived one-upmanship when you are in the know.


STEPS: Trigger & Practical Value

Stories that go viral also tend to be remembered with ease.

Think Gangnam Style. People remember the music video and dance steps vividly for its lyrics “Oppa Gangnam Style”.

Think Jeff Bullas’ popular blog posts or articles from Buzzfeed and you’ll recall “Read this and learn 10 amazing ways to…”. Not only are viral stories easily remembered, but they also promise clear benefits to the reader.


STEPS: Emotional Appeals

Just how arousing each emotion is makes a difference.

Almost needless to say, viral stories appeal to the emotions of the audience. They resonate deeply with them. They speak the unspoken. Think Dollar Shave Club. Everyone thinks that 5 and 6-blade shaving technologies are unnecessary and expensive. But no one said it until Dollar Shave Club did. And they poked fun at it big time - appealing to the underlying feelings of most men in a humorous way. Their slogan was also easily remembered - “Our shavers are f***ing great.”


STEPS: Story

People love stories. The more you see your story as part of a broader narrative, the better.

Here’s what we already know: everyone enjoys listening to stories. But here’s what you don’t: everyone loves stories that are applicable to other aspects of their lives.

Think about the last time you read an inspiring quote and you found it applicable to some aspect of your life. What about “How Person X turned from a pauper into a successful business men in 2 years?” People who read stories that they find applicable to their life are far more likely to share them than people who read stories that they enjoy for reading pleasure. The underlying assumption is, “if I find it useful, others might too.”


Applying STEPS: Understanding why some Facebook posts go viral

To help you understand how you can put together a Facebook post that goes viral using STEPS, I will use the examples from this article. While I do not disagree with the analysis made by the writer, I feel that there are underlying marketing principles which will give you more actionable tips when you put together your content strategy.

Note: For those that were spot-on, I will go through them quickly.


Example 1: EA Sports Madden NFL

Reason from author why post went viral: Featuring a Call-to-Action (CTA). While I do not disagree that a CTA can be useful in driving engagement, I do not think that the main reason the post above went viral is due to use of a CTA. If that is so, you should reasonably expect Facebook posts to go viral more often today.

Instead, I feel that the focus of this post is in the intent.

First, the post appealed to emotions of consumers in a very specific market - Fans of NFL.

Second, the marketing team knows that sport fans can be crazy! They have opinions all the time about how their favourite and rival teams do. They want to take part in conversations and be heard. If you give them voice, they will pounce.

And that was what the marketing team did! They intended the post to go viral by stirring the emotions of NFL fans who supported opposing players. To me, that’s the key reason the post went viral.


Example 2: Oreo

Reason from author why post went viral: Making content easily sharable through the use of recipes.

At a deeper level, I feel that Oreo not only made the content more sharable, but they intended to offer something of practical value.

Oreo makes its own product variations famous not because of how indie their recipes are, but how these recipes can be easily taken and used by anyone who wants to create their own variations of Oreo. More specifically, the ingredients required can be easily bought off the shelf.


Example 3: Buffalo Wild Wings

Reason from author why post went viral: Targeted fun.

I feel that the author got it spot-on for this - it is the idea of evoking positive emotions in the audience.


Example 4: Converse

Reason from author why post went viral: Emotion based.

Again, I feel that the author got it right. The main reason why Converse’s post would go viral is because it connected with the audience at an emotional level, making them feel loved and wanting to share the love.


Example 5: Red Bull

Reason from author why post went viral: Extreme shots.

Once again, the post above is also emotion-based. Anyone who sees this photo is likely to feel amazed and want to share it! The copy - “get up and stay up” - also provides a secondary feeling of inspiration.

I’m not sure when this post was published, but if it was posted at a time of despair, or when people feel lethargic and need an “energy boost”, this post would likely have caught on VERY WELL with those users.


Example 6: Banana Republic

Reason from author why post went viral: Show Your True Colours

This example differs slightly from the above, but it should not be too difficult for you to tell that it is also an emotion-based post coupled with social currency.

Clearly, the post above resonated with 2 kinds of audience:

  1. People who celebrate the new ruling because they were directly affected. i.e. couples of same gender
  2. People who celebrate the new ruling because the underlying statement. i.e. people who stood for the notion of freedom

Issues about same gender marriage are central to headlines in 2013. But after several PR disasters involving brands trying to take advantage of sensitive issues took place, everyone is more cautious toward such attempts. Yet we know that if executed right, the post will have a viral effect, not just because of the emotions it evokes but also how it makes the audience feel like they can be part of the conversation and have their opinions heard. 


Example 7: Oreo

Did I mentioned that Oreo is my favourite brand?

Reason from author why post went viral: Outside the Box.

Indeed, the idea was imaginative. But it also served as a trigger. 

When was the last time you saw optical illusions? They’re mysterious about why they work on us although we know there’s some scientific explanation behind it.

The use of such a visual reminds us about things in the past - and are likely to work only as a one-off tactic in a long time. You can think about favourite childhood pastimes - what were the things you often played with or use that you don’t do so anymore?


Example 8: Dr. Pepper


Reason from author why post went viral: Human truth.

The author got it spot-on again, but this time from an application point-of-view. Posts like the one above allow the audience to understand and relate to them without much thought. The underlying force is still the feelings of inspiration; the feelings you have when you realise something that you took for granted.


Example 9: Axe Angels Club

Reason from author why post went viral: Sex sells.

I cannot deny that. Sex, beer, and humour sell easily. We already know that.

But behind that, it’s also about emotions - our hormones crave the sexual triggers, humour makes us happy and lightens our mood, we love to drink beer for mind altering capabilities (it’s fun!) and for social reasons.

All these might sound fluffy at this point, but what you really need to do is to always ask yourself, “what do I want my audience to feel” and “will my audience feel this way after seeing my post?”


Example 10: Skittles

Reason from author why post went viral: People love prizes.

It’s true because prizes represent practical value. But remember that prizes are not the only thing that offer practical value. Recipes like the one you saw above from Oreo may also be considered as valuable offerings.


Example 11: Lululemon

Reason from author why post went viral: Reactive storytelling. As the author noted, more than 500 brands shared posts that were related to the birth of the Prince. If there’s trending news, there’s guaranteed noise on Social Media. So how do you “cut through the clutter”?

I left this example to the end intentionally. This was my favourite example from the list because it displayed 2 key concepts.

First, it displayed social currency; anyone who shares this post will look like they are in the know and be part of the conversation. 

Second, the post was well-aligned with the brand! We know Lululemon for its marketing strategy:

  1. Conditioning its customers to buy its products the first time they come in touch with them, rather than wait out and buy when discounts are made available
  2. Making their products scarce
  3. Making customers wait for their products to be released before they buy it, and they hardly wait for a next time to buy their products

Bearing these salient values in mind, their copy “the wait is over” could not have been more apt.


In a Nutshell

I hope you understand the recipe behind creating viral content now. But more importantly, I hope you understand that whatever framework you use, you need to align the application to your brand values. That will help to build your brand in the long-term and create the sort of viral impact that will keep your brand at the top of your consumers’ minds.

This framework alone of course will not guarantee that your stories go viral. The standards rise all the time. But it’s a good starting point for you. If you build your content strategy on the right fundamentals, the chance of your success increases greatly.

To read elaborations about the frameworks mentioned, click on the links below.

  1. STEPS by Jonah Berger, author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On”.
  2. RIDE framework by SocialMetric, a Singapore social media agency renowned for its measurable social media marketing methodology

Suggestions? Comment below!

Jason How

I help social media teams and small business owners get more out of their Facebook ad spend. You got it - ROI on Facebook ads. Brands that I have worked with include household brands like Seoul Garden and International Volunteer Day, an initiative of the Ministry of Community, Culture, and Youth (MCCY). When I'm not busy with numbers, I can become a real glutton.