MIT Physicist Explains Science of Viral Content

Joseph J. Romm, American author, blogger, editor, physicist and climate expert, who advocates reducing greenhouse gas emissions to increase energy security. Source: Center for American Progress

When presenting an argument, Western education stresses reliance on science, reason, and logic.

But it turns out, that’s the wrong formula for creating viral content online.

The reality is, we decide based on our emotions and rationalize our decision to ourselves based on information.

Facts are not what persuade us. Sure, facts may be peppered into your story. And you can certainly have a persuasive story that includes facts.

But the real secret to going viral with your content and reaching millions of people is about striking an emotional chord and using persuasive language to make it memorable. In viral marketing, that means coupling emotionally charged stories and A/B testing to discover the headlines that resonate best. 

But how do we do that? And how do we replicate those results time and time again?

While some chalk viral marketing up to chance, Joseph Romm PhD,  former acting asst. secretary at the US Dept. of Energy and 6x best-selling author disagrees.

Understanding the art of creating something that’s “clicky and sticky” is what Joe has dedicated his career to. 

How to Go Viral and reach Millions by Joseph Romm delivers on the title.

While discussing some of the takeaways from his latest book: How to Go Viral and Reach Millions on a recent podcast episode, he shared some tried-and-true ways to make content sticky and clicky.

Science of Viral Marketing 

It is the ego that drives our desire to be win arguments. We all want our words to be influential and persuasive. But the people who have succeeded at that truly understood the history of human communication.

Reading and writing are relatively new concepts. Long before we had iPhones and Google, most of the population was illiterate.. 

In those days, we learned through stories. 

And the storytellers of the past played on our  emotions to help people remember those stories and, ultimately, to try and bring us over to their way of thinking.. 

The three emotions most likely to lodge information into our memories are::

  • Awe
  • Anger
  • Anxiety 

To go viral, you need to illicit one of these emotions, and you need to do it in your headline. Because the reality of the digital world is that most of the content you create today will disappear without ever being read. The headline, on the other hand, is quite likely to get read. Our perceptions are driven by sound bites or viral content that few ever actually read.

Nineteen out of 20 blog posts are not read past the headline.

What’s Remembered is Believed 

As a marketer, it’s your job to know how to tell stories. 

Going back to my opening idea here, it’s not the facts that make people believe what you are saying. It’s how well they remember it. 

Start with a deep understanding of who you're talking to. Then, take these 3 steps to create memorable, viral content:

  • Tell a story
  • Use figures of speech like rhyme, repetition and metaphors
  • Trigger one of the three memorable emotions 

Even if you understand the concepts of viral content and viral marketing, you still have to test. What people will click on and what they actually do, is unpredictable..

Fortunately (or unfortunately), we live in an era when we can use technology to show us what really works, fast and easy.

5 Things to Include in Your Viral Content

Viral content marketing agencies use persuasive language (aka rhetoric), which was literally created by the ancient Greeks for the purpose of persuading juries in a courtroom. 

This was long before the age of enlightenment, when scientific evidence became available and we chose to embrace facts over fiction and our rhetorical skills — which had been the cornerstone of Elizabethean education — began to atrophy, at least for everyone outside of politics.

But for influencers, rhetoric remains a mysterious, misunderstood skill. And it is the key to creating viral content. 

Think back to attorney Johny Cochran's famous line in the OJ Simpson trial, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” 

You might think that courtroom proceedings would be based on logic, but the rhetoric of Johnnie Cochran's phrase was cemented into the minds of the jurors, seeding doubt in their minds with one simple, powerful rhyme. 

To improve your likelihood of going viral, here’s what you should remember:

How to Make Viral Content – 5 Tips

1. Short Words Win 

Did you know that the average word length in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is 3.99 characters?

I’m bringing that up because Shakespeare is arguably one of the most well-known viral content creators of all time. 

It’s clear he understood that big words are less persuasive and less memorable than simple ones.

Now, think of some of the most iconic advertising and political lines and slogans in more modern history: 

  • “I have a dream…”
  • “Just do it.”
  • “Have it your way”
  • “GOT MILK?”
  • “The Few, The Proud”
  • “Axis of Evil”
  • “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
  • “Just Say No”
  • “No Child Left Behind”
  • Make America Great Again
  • Build Back Better

One and two-syllable words are able to create a deeper emotional connection with the reader much quicker.

2. Repetition Rules

If you do a quick search on YouTube for the most viewed videos of all time, you’ll see that most, if not all, of them are pop songs.

That’s because their repetitive nature was DESIGNED to be remembered. For better or worse, depending on your musical taste.

But music producers and songwriters don’t just repeat choruses, lines, and rhymes in each song. You’ll probably recognize certain chords and general sounds that are used repeatedly from song to song and performer to performer.

Repeating small, recognizable parts of one song in another helps us create a natural, almost instant affinity toward it. It uses something familiar to introduce something new so that it doesn’t feel so strange and novel to us that we don’t keep listening.

Another widely-adopted example of successful repetition is in the Bible.

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” (Gen. 1:3-4)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Repetition makes these verses more memorable and, thus, believable. 

In your viral marketing, you can repeat words, ideas, sounds, letters, or ends of words (as in rhymes) to drive home your marketing message. 

Let’s take a closer look at two more ways you can use repetition for viral marketing.

3. Alliteration Acquires Attention

Alliteration is really another form of repetition. I

For those not familiar with the term, alliteration is the use of the same letter or sound at the beginning of words. 

Copywriters use this technique frequently to come up with memorable marketing campaign slogans. Like repetition, alliteration gets used mostly in headlines, which are what get read mostly anyway.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most memorable business names out there use alliteration. 

  • Bed, Bath and Beyond
  • Best Buy
  • Chuck E Cheese
  • Dunkin’ Donuts
  • Krispy Kreme
  • Gold’s Gym

…the list goes on and on. 

Similarly, using rhyme and alliteration in headlines is a great way to break through the clutter. 

 4. Headlines are the Best Time to Rhyme 

Rhymes aren’t just for pop songs or sonnets.

You probably used them as a kid to remember new concepts in school, like “I before E, except after C.”

Rhymes are one of the most powerful ways of remembering things. 

And if you keep your eyes open, you’ll start to notice they are in many more things than you may have thought – like school books, songs, poetry, and yes, that viral Facebook post you just watched

Joe mentioned research conducted on the impact of rhymes on perceptions.

The study took two lines that had the same meaning, but were conveyed with different words. The researchers wanted to know which one was more believable.

They were…

“Woes unite foes.”

“Woes unite enemies.”

Can you guess which one won?

Despite both these sentences having the same meaning, the study showed that the first one was more believable. 

Use these first 4 viral content creation tips to learn how to write good headlines for blog. Here’s 3 examples of blog headlines that use rhyme, repetition and alliteration:

Pro Tip: If you’re drawing a blank when it comes to using rhymes in your viral content, check out Rhyme Zone. The site helps you find rhyming words and phrases, as well as search popular sayings from songs and literature.

5. Metaphors are Memorable

The process of decoding a metaphor is memorable. They call to mind a visual image we use to make a figurative connection between the two things. 

Here are some popular uses of metaphors Joe shared that we’ve probably all heard: 

  • “All the world’s a stage.” 
  • “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” 
  • “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
  • “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then, always be Batman.”

How Metaphors Make Online Viral Go Content

  • A good majority of people are visual learners, and metaphors often use visualization to get a point across. That picture in their mind that sticks with them long after the rest of your words have disappeared. 
  • We have to exert some degree of effort, albeit small, in order to decode the meaning of a metaphor. And we tend to remember that thought process. 

“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor…,” wrote Aristotle in Poetics and he wasn’t wrong.

5 Ways to Create Viral Content

If you want your marketing efforts to go viral, remember Joe’s five rules:

  1. Tell a story – Make your message an “if, but, then” narrative. 
  1. Use figures of speech – Rhymes, idioms, metaphors, etc. 
  1. Trigger an emotion – Invoke the three A’s: awe, anger, and anxiety.
  1. Paint a picture – And use metaphor to engage the reader in decoding the message.
  1. Test your message – The single most important thing in all of marketing is testing. Test headlines on a site like Chartbeat — and subject lines in email — until you find what literally clicks. 

The sooner you start using these elements in your content marketing and lead generation campaigns, the better you’ll be at using viral content  marketing techniques to break through the clutter.

To dig into these ideas and viral marketing tactics, give the podcast a listen or watch the interview on YouTube. 

Joe and I dissected marketing messages from iconic brands, Trump’s presidential campaign, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the Bible to see exactly why the messaging in these seemingly very different pieces of content are all so successful.

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