Going Viral: 7 Psychological Hacks To Reach A Massive Audience

I once heard of a guy who had dedicated his life to creating quality, thought-provoking short films and YouTube videos. His content was good, well-produced and complex.

However, while he had won a few small-time independent awards for his work, nothing that he’d created had ever really taken off on social media. For some reason, the masses just weren’t sharing.

One day, after a long day of filming, he came home to discover that a troop of cheeky monkeys had broken into his home and were feasting on his bananas. So he whipped out his cellphone, and filmed the monkeys infesting his home and eating his bananas, and uploaded the video to social media.

The next morning, he woke up to find thousands of shares of the monkey infestation video and within a month the video had reached over 200 000 views. He felt conflicted – why were the videos he was pouring his heart and soul into being met with crickets, while the silly monkey video was doing so well?

His videos were exceptionally well made, but for some reason the general public weren’t sharing. So why does some content go viral, and others marinade in the ground with the crickets?

Many people like to give away ‘formulas’ to create viral content, and while most of that advice is true (like choosing a captivating title and an enticing cover picture, answering common questions, put your own spin on content, etc) there are some deeper reasons why certain content takes off while others don’t.

1) The Primary School Language Trick

Have you ever poured your heart and soul into creating smart, witty and well-thought-out content, only to be met with the feint chirping of crickets?

I used to write complex academic articles littered with psychological jargon (because it made me sound oh-so-clever)… only to be met with those bloody crickets each time. It was soul crushing. Why was no one paying attention to my clever content?

The answer may lie in Einstein’s famous quote: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Consider any viral content you may have seen recently: how many were simple and easy to understand? How many were complex and littered with jargon?

Chances are that most (if not all) viral content is easy to understand – even if the topic itself is complex.

Perhaps the best advice I’ve ever received from a fellow writer was this: Write at a primary school level. In other words, write as if your audience has the reading ability, vocabulary and understanding of a grade 4 or 5 learner.

I thought his suggestion was ludicrous at first, and continued to churn out those academic articles. Tired of having crickets and a mere handful of other academics as my only audience, I decided to take the advice I had been given.

So I left out all the fancy-shmancy academic and industry-specific jargon that made me sound like a smarty pants, brought my pride down to earth and began to write for humans. Instantly my articles began to take off.

Why? Three reasons: Pride, Effort and Global audience (PEG).

2) PEG (Pride, Effort and Global audience)

There’s a reason why simple language and explanations are key to making content go viral, and it has everything to do with your audience.

Your audience is the ONLY THING that will determine whether or not your content will go viral, so as a content creator you need to keep these three things in mind: Protect your audience’s pride, make your content effortless/easy to understand, and create content for a global audience (not all people are fluent in English or familiar with your industry or culture).

People need and want to be able to understand what they are reading (or listening to) because otherwise they’ll just feel stupid (and no one will continue reading or share content that makes them feel or look stupid). Littering your posts with industry specific jargon without fully explaining what you mean in simple language will alienate a huge potential audience.

Nobody wants to feel confused or stupid, and so even though jargon may make you sound intelligent and distinguished, it’s not going to entice people to keep watching or reading your content. In other words, you need to protect your audience’s pride.

People also tend to gravitate toward what is easy. No one has the time or energy anymore to sift through difficult words and confusing sentences. It’s too much effort. Furthermore, the majority of people reading articles or viewing your content are not native English speakers – if you want a global audience to make your content go viral, you need to realize that most people speak English as a second or third language, and/or are not familiar with your industryspecific jargon.

If you want shares, comments and likes, you need to make your content easy to understand and easy for people to respond to.

3) Enhanced Image & Social Proof

What do glamorized selfies, monkey videos, and political articles have in common? This is a question researchers and psychologists have been asking since social media hit the scene.

Why do people post and share the things that they do? Well, one of the big reasons people share certain content is to portray a certain image about themselves. If a businessman wants to look super professional and like he knows what he’s doing, he’ll be more inclined to share business related articles or videos. If a teenager wants to prove she is funny, she might share funny articles, videos and memes to prove that she has a sense of humour.

Everyone has a certain image that they are trying to convey and maintain, and subconsciously we only share content that somehow validates and supports the ‘perfect image’ we want the world to see.

Along with image, researchers have found something even more interesting: People look to others to guide their behavior. In other words, if you post something that was met with negative or no feedback, you would probably refrain from posting content like that again (unless you’re just looking to get people riled up!).

However, the opposite is also true: if the content that you shared or posted is met with positive feedback, you will be more inclined to post content like that again. We tend to link the feedback from posts to our personalities and image.

For example, if someone commented “this is hilarious” on a post that you shared, you might subconsciously translate this as “people think I’m hilarious because what I think is funny IS actually funny.” So how do you use social proof to get people to share or view your content? Two ways:

1) Create positive content that will evoke positive responses – the kind of content that you would share and respond to in a positive way.

2) Create content that will make people look good when they post it. People are more likely to share content if it makes them look good, or if it has many positive comments and views. Why? Well, because of something called ‘the magnetic middle’.

4) The ‘magnetic middle’

Not only does the content we post and share help us to confirm what we believe about ourselves and our online image, it also plays a role in what researchers call ‘the magnetic middle’. The magnetic middle is the sweet spot of ‘normal’ where everyone wants to be (think: ‘popular culture’).

No matter how ‘different’ and ‘unique’ people try to be, they will almost always fall within the walls of ‘normal’ and ‘socially acceptable’. Endless studies have shown that people will adjust their behaviours to be more in line with what is ‘normal’. But wait, there’s more! People will also share content that justifies their own weirdness.

Have you ever read or seen something kinda weird or different and thought; “Oh wait, so I’m not the only one who does that?” Or “Oh, so I’m not the only one who thinks that!”. It’s comforting to know that you’re not the only one, right? “Oh wait, I’m not the only one who….?!” is the ultimate reaction you want to get.

It’s the good kind of shock factor because it makes people feel less weird and more normal. This triggers an excited response – and what do people do when they feel excited about something? They want to share it! Yes, the ‘magnetic middle’ is the sweet spot: people will try very hard to be in it, and they will love you if you make them feel like their reality is okay.

So if you take away anything from this article, then this is it: people are desperate to feel normal. Sympathize with common struggles, make fun of your own mistakes and talk about the fears, failures and challenges you’ve had to deal with. If you create content that your audience can identify with and makes them feel excited about the fact that they are not as much of a failure or freak as they once thought, you’ll be on to a winner.

5) The sharable emotion

Many social media experts have found that evoking a strong emotion in people is key to creating viral content. While this is true, most people don’t know how to execute this well.

Shock value for the sake of shock value has been overkilled, and too many people are trying to lead with ‘I’m offended because…’ or ‘feel sorry for me because’ posts. Yes, strong emotions usually elicit responses from people, but how do you know which emotion to focus on? According to Andrew and Pete, you should always leave people feeling happier and smarter.

This is some of the best advice I’ve come across. I’m going to take it one step deeper and combine those two emotions into one: The one emotion that will always work (combination of happy + smart) is excitement. Eliciting feelings of excitement about having learned something new, about having fears contradicted, or about feeling normal or like a winner will generate shares.

So how does this apply to you if you’re creating content about your business or social media marketing? Well, a great tool to use is humor – but I don’t mean a few snide jokes or the scattering of clever puns throughout the article or video. What I mean is this: create something funny, relatable and entertaining.

Tell a funny story about how your first sales pitch totally failed and then let your audience know what you did to make that first successful sale. Or make people feel super smart when they read something (Hint: only 1% of the population will understand this difficult concept). By creating content that leaves people feeling both happier and smarter, you’ll be setting yourself up for success.

6) Even the score – Humans are pretty simple creatures

While we may behave in some not-so-simple ways, our basic needs, wants and desires are essentially the same. One way in which we are all alike, is that we all love to be complimented and feel good about ourselves.

Another area in which we are the same (believe it or not) is that we instinctively want to help people who have helped us. I call this the formula for reciprocity: Make your audience feel like a million bucks + help them with something = audience more inclined to share and promote your content.

Making people feel good about themselves is as easy as helping them to feel normal and excited (happier + smarter). As a content creator, you’ll find this easy to do because you can share your own stories (story-telling is another powerful tool you can use). At the same time, you can actively help people (you are probably doing that already) by sharing your expert advice and giving valuable input.

7) Trust your gut

A lot of people suggest that the ‘copy and spin’ method is one of the best ways to go viral. In a cupcake, this means: copy someone else’s content that is doing well, and then put your own unique spin on it. This is great advice in theory, but most people don’t know how to execute this correctly… or find a good ‘spin’.

However, this method has never worked for me personally. I’ve had several articles and content go viral, but they have never been ‘copy and spin’ or ‘cookie cutter’ articles. In fact, whenever I’ve tried to go viral with the copy and spin method, I’ve always been met with ‘chirp, chirp, chirp’ and the occasional ‘ribbit’.

Instead, the viral content I’ve created have all had one thing in common: I trusted my gut. No, I’m not talking about my stomach grumbling because it wanted cake (although, this is entirely possible), I’m talking about a deep, unshakable feeling or desire to do or know something.

In 2015 I wrote an article called Are You Beautiful? I Asked 100 Men What Physical Beauty Is & The Results Shocked Me. I didn’t intend for it to go viral, I just did the research and wrote it out of sheer curiosity. I desperately wanted to know the answers for myself.

I’d spent my entire life feeling like I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t look like the models in magazines or the flawless actresses in chick flicks. So I surveyed over 100 men and asked them in-depth questions about what they considered to be physically beautiful.

I was expecting to have my insecurities confirmed: that I wasn’t good enough. I still remember shaking a little as a went through the results. But, as it so happens, my fears and insecurities were contradicted, and the article was born.

The article went viral overnight – reaching over a million hits in less than a week. I learned a powerful lesson from that article: I wasn’t the only woman wondering if I was good enough, slim enough or pretty enough – millions of other women were wondering the same thing too. I realized that there are a lot of deep human questions that aren’t being answered because most people don’t know how to verbalize their thoughts, fears, hopes and feelings without some help.

Everyone has unanswered questions – questions we desperately want to know the answers to but sometimes don’t know how to ask or where to find the answers. If you can somehow find the words for those questions that are related to your industry and conduct your own research on the topic (through surveys and polls), you could be pleasantly surprised by the outcome. Trust your instincts, your impressions and those unshakable feelings – you may be on to something big!

You don’t have to be the Picasso of content creation to make it big. It’s often tempting to want to use the grandest of productions, the classiest sounding words and the most complex ideas. But more often than not, a poor quality video of monkeys in a house eating bananas will get more views than a grand and complex production because people are drawn to simple entertainment or content that doesn’t require much brain power.

If you learn how to make people feel good about themselves, get excited about something, teach them something valuable while trusting your gut, then your content will be infecting the planet in no time!

Rozanne Leigh


Hey! I’m Rozanne – the only millennial you know who doesn’t want to be a mermaid 😉 Instead I have a psych degree that I actually use, and a post-grad in education. I write about human relationships and confidence. So if you’re looking for a confidence boost, or unsure how to get your husband to start making the bed without sounding like a nag, then I’m your gal 😉

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