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How Can Your Online Community Go Viral?

Written by Julie Dietz on November 16, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Use these tricks to help your online community reach more people.

Often, we think of people as unpredictable, hard to read, ever changing. Predicting what customers will like or what trends will take off can feel akin to reading tea leaves or firing a shot in the dark, which is usually a recipe for frustration.

Luckily, Dr. Jonah Berger’s research has uncovered the exact opposite, and his Super Forum keynote discussed research that shows people are quite predictable. Better yet, when you learn the social science behind why people make certain decisions, you can craft marketing campaigns that go viral.

Dr. Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and bestselling author of two books, Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior. His research identifies six key factors to predict if an idea, concept or product will go viral. Abbreviated as the S.T.E.P.P.S., they are: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories.

Of all the S.T.E.P.P.S., Social Currency, Triggers, and Stories are most relevant to online community professionals. Dr. Berger gave us details on those three elements of viral content so you can apply them to your own work.

Social Currency

A well-known fact about secrets is that they rarely stay secret for long. Many people can relate—when you’re given information few people have, isn’t it hard to keep it to yourself? The access makes you feel and look important, so you often feel compelled to share it.

please don't tell highlights the power of secrets in viral marketing tactics-3.pngPlease Don’t Tell, a hidden bar in London, is an excellent example. Please Don’t Tell has no street signs or advertising, and you can only gain entrance by calling the host from a phone booth in the back of a hot dog shop. The bar’s name clearly asks people not to talk about it, which has the opposite effect on its customers. Wouldn’t you want to tell your friends about the cool bar no one knows about?

Please Don’t Tell uses secrecy to compel customers to spread the word. It now has over 300 reviews on Yelp and there’s consistently a waiting line to get in - all accomplished without spending a penny on traditional marketing.

When designing a new program or community, keep this in mind. How will your new initiative make your members feel? If being involved in your community makes them feel important, increases their social capital, and gives them exclusive information, they’re more likely to share this place with others.


As Dr. Berger said, “Top of mind means tip of tongue.” If you think of something, you’re more likely to talk about it. But how do you get people to think about your organization or community at a time when they’re likely to tell others about it?

Dr. Berger used the example of reusable grocery bags. Many of us have tons of them in our house. When we get to the checkout line, almost always we realize we forgot them. The intent is there, but we don’t have a proper trigger.

Companies like Geico have triggers figured out. One of Geico’s commercials included the tagline: “How happy are people who save hundreds of dollars switching to Geico? ...happier than a camel on Wednesday.” It was an entertaining and effective trigger that caused people to think about Geico every Wednesday.




Use triggers to help your organization be top of mind at the right time, so members use your services when they have a problem or recommend you to a friend. This is key, because many things are well-known, but not well-used.

Think about who you want to trigger and when you want them to act so members remember your initiative at the right time.


Stories aren’t just entertaining—they carry important information. Even if you create an awesome community full of value, you need to give your members an excuse to talk about it, and stories are the perfect excuse.

If you’re at a party and someone says, ‘I joined an online community about xyz,’ you may not find that interesting or compelling. But if they talk about the funny GIF conversation in the community, or the valuable networking event they heard about through the community, they’ll have more opportunity to capture you based on your initiatives or preexisting communities. Dr. Berger calls these “Trojan Horse Stories,” because they increase awareness without being directly promotional.

Create memorable opportunities in your community that give people a reason to bring your organization up in conversation naturally. By creating stories, your members will spread the word organically.

How Will Your Community Go Viral?

For you, viral might not mean worldwide recognition by the general population, but you could go viral amongst your demographic. And that’s the most important audience for your organization. How can you implement the S.T.E.P.P.S. to increase awareness about your community?

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Topics: Online Community Management, Marketing, Online Community

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