3 Things All Products That Go Viral Have In Common
Updated: Jan 29
"I just went viral!" These days, hearing someone declare those four words is almost as sensational as hearing someone say, "I just won the lottery!" Actually, believe it or not—some people would prefer going viral over privately winning the lottery (I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true).
The reason that going viral is such a coveted experience by so many people is because it provides two things humans inherently yearn for which is: Validation and Exhilaration. Those two things also happen to be two of the three reasons that consumers purchase products.
The sentiment shared by those that go viral (intentionally…and for the right reasons of course) is that by going viral—it’s social proof that they’ve done something so significant that a lot of people were interested enough—they felt compelled to share it with others instantaneously on the internet.
And while a person going viral for something you’ve done is cool and a boost for the ego. It’s not necessarily a difference-maker when it comes to your bottom-line. However, products and brands that went viral have turned many entrepreneurs into millionaires.
Here’s what those products have in common.
1. They're socially exchangeable
Have you ever been to a new restaurant and had a meal that was absolutely amazing and the service was next-level spectacular? If so, I’m sure that one of the first things you thought of after you took that last bite of your delicious meal was, "I can’t wait to tell my friends about this place!" (Be honest, you probably thought about it before taking that last bite.)
The reason you probably felt so compelled to tell others about your great dining experience is because as social beings—humans are wired to share stories with others about things that they care about. Especially if those things could provide the storyteller social capital.
In his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, author Jonah Berger, simplified social exchange when he stated, “We share things that make us look good.”
All products that go viral have an element of social exchange-ability baked within them. Consumers feel compelled to tell others about cool things they've discovered because that cool thing is a reflection of themselves.
So if Tim the consumer knows about a cool product before others do—Tim feels compelled to tell his peers because by proxy—it makes him cool. Since only a cool person in-the-know like him would know about it.
2. An exclusivity element
I’m sure you’re probably thinking that a product going viral and being exclusive is a total oxymoron (you’d be right by the way). But products that go viral all have an element of exclusivity or confidentiality about them. In other words, there’s an element of secrecy or scarcity baked into them because they’re not easily accessible to the masses. Which makes them cool to tell others about.
A great example of a product that went viral due to confidentiality and scarcity is the Popeyes chicken sandwich.
During the brand’s initial launch of the sandwich in 2019, Popeyes customers—and the brand’s social media marketing team, posted videos of themselves trying the sandwich for the first time on social media and gave it rave reviews. Which caused others to want to try it for themselves to see what all the hoopla was about and if the sandwich really tasted as good as claimed.
However, whether intentionally or not—Popeyes sold out of the sandwich and couldn’t meet the demand of consumers. But that only increased consumer demand for it. Suddenly, those first customers that were able to get their hands on the sandwich had social capital over those that hadn’t been able to—which only made those that hadn’t envious.
Restaurant Brands CEO José Cil, made this statement about the craze behind his brand’s sandwich, “We got really fortunate to have a great marketing team interacting on social media and creating buzz that then drove people to the restaurants to test the hype and to validate whether the hype was true.”
Here’s the thing, no one likes being out-of-the-loop. And word-of-mouth is still the most effective form of marketing. From a psychological perspective, think of it this way—if all your neighbors became members of a private social club and said it was the best—you’d probably want to join the club as well. And you’d likely want to join the club even more if your first application was denied.
That same dynamic is what helps products go viral through exclusivity and scarcity.
As stated in Contagious, “Scarcity and exclusivity boosts word-of-mouth by making people feel like insiders. If people get something not everyone has, it makes them feel special, unique, high-status. And because of that, they’ll not only like a product or service more—but tell others about it. Why? Because telling others makes them look good.”
3. They’re triggering
Before a product can take off and go viral, the product must first be espoused by an initial audience—aka early adopters. That's because products that go viral all have triggers that entice early adopters to give them a try.
Author Nir Eyal, explained the way that triggers ignite early adopters to act in his book, Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products, when he stated that triggers are, “The actuator of behavior. The spark plug in the engine. Triggers come in two types: External and Internal. Habit-forming products start by alerting users with external triggers.”
If you’re wondering what a trigger for a product looks like, look no further than your smartphone. Every time your phone rings or you see a text message pop up—it serves as a trigger strongly urging you to act; either by answering your phone or by checking your inbox to see who sent the text and why. Social media notifications also have the same triggering effect.
From a marketing perspective, the great thing about triggers is that just about everyone has one.
For some, a trigger could be watching someone demonstrate a product on TikTok in a cool way—as was the case with The Sunset Lamp which led to the product going viral. For others, it could be constantly seeing a product featured in music videos on YouTube by their favorite artists—as was the case in the launch of Beats By Dre headphones.
Or, a product could be so wild and weird that it receives so much bad publicity—early adopters feel are triggered to try it just to go against the grain. Which was the case for many that couldn't wait to get their hands on the TikTok famous Pink Sauce. Which is now in Walmart stores.
The thing to keep in mind is that products that go viral have triggers that resonate with a large audience instantaneously. And in order to be effective—they must connect to an inherent behavioral pattern within that audience. As articulated in Hooked, “Habit-forming technologies leverage the user’s past behavior to initiate an external trigger in the future.”
After years of studying products that have gone viral—I’ve come to the conclusion that while they all contain the elements above, there is no exact science that will make a product or a person go viral. If it were, huge brands like Popeyes would apply the same tactics that made their chicken sandwich go viral with all of their product launches and they’d all go viral.
In order for a product to go viral, it requires a great deal of luck. To use a basketball analogy, products that go viral are sort of like making half-court shots...some of the best basketball players in the world attempt them daily and yet they’re still considered lucky whenever they make one.
If your goal is for one of your products to go viral, baking the three elements above within those products will definitely give you the best chance to score that goal.