The Five Elements of Viral Calls to Action

Most marketers know that to get someone to do what you want, you have to ask them to do it, you have to have a call-to-action (CTA) that persuades them to buy your product. With social media marketing, the action we’re aiming for is to get our readers to share our content with their friends and networks, so our CTAs must entice them to do just that. Here’s the 5 most important concepts to think about when you’re constructing your viral calls to action.


People like to think that everything they do comes from some logical, un-manipulateable part of their own brain. Doing what you’re told doesn’t feel as good as doing what you want to do, and nobody really wants to believe that what they “want to do” can be easily directed. This is especially true when it comes to sharing ideas and content with friends. Who would share something just because they’ve been told to by some marketer they don’t know?

The point here is that if you want to persuade your readers to spread your content, its not a great idea to whack them over the head with painfully obvious commands (although it will work in special instances, like when you’ve giving something away). You shouldn’t tell them what to do, you should make them want to do it in such a way that it feels like the idea was their own.


There are a number of reasons why people spread ideas and content, and when you’re constructing your viral call to action, you should be leveraging one or more of these specifically.

If you get a group of marketers in a room together and ask them how to “make something go viral” one of the first things someone suggests is to give something away for free. And it works. People love free stuff and they’re often willing to do something for a chance to win. A pretty easy, if unimaginative and elementary way to get people to spread an idea or piece of content is to offer them a prize for doing so. This is perhaps the most surefire way to “go viral” and if you’re in a hurry to come up with a contagious idea, this is often your best bet. You’re essentially paying them to spread your content for you. The only concern with this tactic is that high-reach individuals will probably see right through it, and you’re unlikely to bribe someone with a size able audience this way.

When you directly ask people why they share things with their friends, the most common response is “relevance.” Things like “it seemed right up my friend’s alley” or “it made me think of so-and-so.” One fairly obvious CTA that exploits this motivation would be “send this link to your friends who’d be interested in it” or something to that effect. Its simple and obvious, but it might just work to a point.

My favorite, way to encourage this response, is the more subtle “combined relevance” technique that allows you to create content that seems personalized for a lot of people. Of course if you sent every one of your friends links to every piece of content that was relevant to them, that would be all you did. You’re going to need to hit on more powerful motivators than just relevance.

A 1983 article titled “On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures” the author, Douglas R. Hofstadter recounts a letter he was sent in response to a previous piece. This letter describes viral sentences beginning with the rudimentary: “It is your duty to convince others that this is true.”

The letter then explores a more subtle variation of that technique based on a simple structure: “The villain is wronging the victim.” If the listener believes this statement, and believes that the victim deserves to be saved and if the villain is bigger or more powerful than them they will realize that the only way to effectively challenge the villain is to recruit more people to help. Thus the motivation is powerful and the call-to-action itself is subtle.

For example let’s look at the title of one of my most popular blog posts ever:

Twitter plans to Mangle ReTweets.

The easiest way to make someone believe that he victim is worth saving is to make them identify with the victim, in this case anyone who ReTweets. ReTweeters were the target of this sentence, and given their contagious behavior, they make a wonderful audience. The villain of this sentence is, of course, Twitter. They may not be a huge company, but they’re larger and more powerful in this area than any individual user. The only way someone could hope to #saveretweets would be to recruit all of their followers in the fight.

I’ve written and talked about a bunch of different motivations and rather than detail each one of them here, I’ll list some of the best and link to more indepth studies of them.

Friction Reduction

As with any good call to action, you should have a very clear idea of the specific action you want your readers to take. Is it to share the blog post on Facebook? Is it to ReTweet you? Is it to email your YouTube video to all their friends? The most effective calls will likewise have a very specific aim.

Since you know precisely what you’re trying to persuade people to do, you should also be ale to understand how much time and effort it will take for them to do it. This time and effort is friction and the more friction presented to your potential spreaders, the less likely they’re going to be to share your content.

You can overcome a high friction action with a lot of motivation. If you want people to compose customized 500 word emails to 20 of their best friends with your link at the bottom, you’d better be offering them a very good reason for wanting to do so.

The other side of this problem is to reduce the amount of friction present. Asking people to click a single link to ReTweet or Digg something is asking very little of them. Creating a one-click sharing action is the holy grail of frictionless viral calls to action. But if you want them to do something that requires a bit more effort, like sending lots of emails, consider offering them some cut-and-paste text to use.

Timing & Placement

Consider for a moment, the tiresome marketing/dating analogy: if you go out on a first date, you wouldn’t propose marriage, so you shouldn’t ask someone to do something for you before you’ve provided them any value or built a relationship with them.

When we’re talking about viral calls to action there are two issues at play. One is that you want your calls above the fold in as prominent a location as possible, and the other is that you want to present your readers with the call to action exactly when they’re most likely to want to use it and share your content (which is typically after they’ve read it). The easiest solution is to put your buttons, links, whatever form your CTAs take in both places, that is at the beginning of your content and at the end.

In the case of a button, like the ReTweet or Digg buttons, the mere site of them becomes a form of social proof motivation. If a visitor sees that hundreds of people have already liked this content, they’re much more likely to percieve it as more valuable as well. With these types of calls to action you should place them where a visitor will see them upon first viewing your content.

There is also much to be said about the colors and look and feel of the CTA, especially if it is a button. I’ve written about that in more depth elsewhere, so I won’t go into it in this post.


In many forms of social media, the element of a piece of content that is actually being shared by users is the title. On Twitter, ReTweets of an article typically contain its title, the same with social news sites, social networks and often email and IM. This means that when an individual spreads your content for you, they’re likely to be using the headline as if it were their own words, anything you say in the title borrows the authority of the sharer.

When we construct content we wish to spread, if we can bake in the viral call to action in such a way that it is contained in the title itself, we can make the act of sharing it self-replicating. A simple example is the blog post with the title “ReTweet this to win.” Again, while giveaways and less subtle calls-to-action like this can be effective there are drawbacks. A more sophisticated example would be the “the villian is wronging the victim” model from above.

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stevewillinger February 16, 2010 at 11:31 am

Dan, thank you for the time you invest in preparing your thoughts and sharing your knowledge…I have learned so much from you about the effectiveness, value and required responsible behavior of those producing social media. As a SCORE Counselor in Bristol, TN/VA and I am very pleased to share the knowledge you have freely shared.

Free Classifieds Blog February 16, 2010 at 6:36 pm

Good articles in pointing out the five elements. It would have been even better if examples were given. Thanks

Mike Stenger February 16, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Very informative post Dan. To add one more really good point to the whole discussion is that you can be most effective when you target people's emotions, bring those emotions to the surface, and have that clear call to action because they're much more likely to act and feel less “friction” to do so. At that point it will be like they're doing it themselves, for themselves, not because someone told them to.

Maddy February 17, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Interesting post, Dan.

Something else that I think is worth adding, which ties into your first two points about subtlety and motivation/relevance, is that the most effective call to action in viral campaigns is not a call to action at all, but instead is just content that is interesting or entertaining (and relevant) enough for people to want to share it without any inducement.

Giveaways and contests may be motivating for a short time, but if you’re trying to build lasting relationships with people through viral marketing I think you need to give them more than that. You need to give them a reason to stay interested in your brand or cause, and intriguing, interesting or entertaining content that people want to know more about is a key part of doing that.

Ana | Traffic Generation Cafe February 17, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Dan, every time I read a post of yours, it’s like reading an in-depth study on the subject. This particular post definitely gave me many tools to rethink my calls to action. There is always room for improvement, even though in some cases we are talking about a galaxy, not just room.Ana/High Search Engine Ranking Optimization

keithobrien February 17, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Dan – great stuff here. I appreciate the directness, depth and hype-free (made that word up) style of your writing. I love internet marketing…but loath how most do it. This article is a clear confirmation that people can win online without being annoying. Like the new project of Chris Brogan and Brian Clark – it's very Third Tribe. Thanks again.

William Robbins February 17, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Great post Dan. I especially liked the content on motivation. A lot of time I personally create good “consumables”, but not always “sharables”.

Hugh Munro February 18, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Thanks Dan, great post. One query – how do you reconcile the need for Subtlety with the fact that tweets containing the (less than subtle) phrase “please retweet” get retweeted more?

Cory Grassell February 18, 2010 at 2:35 pm

I have found that releasing groundbreaking or thought-leadership-type content truly enhances the appeal of spreading the word. This attracts first-time visitors and keeps faithful readers coming back. They'll look to you for fresh content, ideas, tactics, news, etc. But you have to be a faithful publisher, as your readers will be relying on your content on a scheduled basis.

Mona Nomura February 19, 2010 at 9:24 am

Holy amazing post, Batman. Thanks for this and also, for all you do! #fangirl. Oh yes I DID just hashtag a blog comment. ;)

Jane Cooke February 19, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Thank you for an excellent post Dan. It is always educational to read your posts. I really liked it starting with subtle.

BoulderWriter February 20, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Absolutely love your knowledge and icons toolbar! genius!

claudeoggier March 3, 2010 at 10:41 am

Building a relationship takes time and patience is definitely required as well. Like Steve Willinger I also look forward to continue reading and sharing your articles. Keep up the great work. Thank you!

Jamie Allsop March 11, 2010 at 9:05 am

Thanks for the very informative and interesting post. You have mentioned some really valuable points.

alexa52 March 17, 2010 at 9:24 pm

I thought the same thing — examples would have been great.

alexa52 March 17, 2010 at 9:24 pm

I thought the same thing — examples would have been great.

DebDrive April 7, 2010 at 5:25 pm

That was my question, too, Hugh . . . but then Dan hit on the Friction Reduction point: “Creating a one-click sharing action is the holy grail of frictionless viral calls to action.” Retweeting is simple, and it feels good to be able to help out.

DebDrive April 7, 2010 at 6:32 pm

That was my question, too, Hugh . . . but then Dan hit on the Friction Reduction point: “Creating a one-click sharing action is the holy grail of frictionless viral calls to action.” Retweeting is simple, and it feels good to be able to help out.

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