Designing for Contagiousness

When marketers think about “going viral,” they think about creating infectious content and getting it in front of the right people. And while that’s a great place to start, contagious design can also go a long way to help. Here’s 7 things to think about when designing a blog or site for maximum viral effect.

Timeliness & Urgency

Breaking news is one of the most contagious types of content, in every form I’ve studied. From social news and voting to Twitter, if you are the first to cover some important information, you’ll almost assuredly go viral. The reasons for this include the importance of information scarcity and the reputation-boost that comes from being the first to know about something cool.

  • Color: Use hot colors to emphasize new content– think about how highlights breaking news in yellow at the top of the page.
  • Time and Date Stamps: Most blog themes include time and date of posting, but you should work to make this information as prominent as possible on fresh content. Perhaps even go so far as to remove, or downplay, this element on old content to reduce a reader’s resistance to sharing “stale” information.
  • Positioning: Be sure to place links to the newest content on a site in prominent locations, even on older content. Again, notice’s breaking news block.

Social Proof

People are much more likely to spread content if other people have also spread it. Think about long email chain letter forward headers, or ReTweets with multiple usernames included. Informational cascades are a strong example of this kind of behavior from economics and game theory. Signs of activity and positive feedback from other users can also function as a signal of quality and authority, as well as implicit call to actions; “I loved this post so much I Tweeted about it” subtly says “and you should too” to readers.

  • Comments: Once a post has a couple of comments on it, display the number of comments in a visible location.
  • Social Media Reactions: Using a plugin like Disqus allows you to display comments about a piece of content left in places other than the blog itself.
  • Subscribers: Any blog that is using Feedburner can include a small graphic that shows the number of users subscribed. If that number is high (above a few thousand), consider including it in the theme.
  • Number of ReTweets: The TweetMeme plugin makes it very easy to display the number of times a piece of content has been ReTweeted.
  • Testimonials: Readers, users or customers might have said nice things about your site (either in email or on a social site); ask them for permission, and then feature their feedback on your site.


Nobody wants to be the one who told all their friends about something, only to have it turn out to be a hoax, so communicating a sense of authority is a key task for a designer interested in stimulating viral content sharing. In his work on applied memetics, Francis Heylighen specifically mentions authority as a required criteria for an idea to spread, saying:

…hosts or vehicles that are held in high regard or considered to represent expertise in the domain, will be more easily noticed and accepted

  • Custom Design: One of the most obvious signals of a low-authority site is a commonly reused theme. Don’t use default templates; invest in designing a look and feel that is unique to your site and communicates your brand well.
  • Professionalism: Your design can convey a level of professionalism through sophisticated use of fonts (only one or two at most), whitespace, grid layouts and mature color schemes. Don’t use too many animated gifs and don’t have auto-play music. Avoid “MySpace-esque” design.


Huge blocks of shapeless text are daunting, boring and unlikely to be spread. Social media users have demonstrated a well-known preference for content that has the feeling of chunked, easy-to-scan information.

  • Chunking: Make sure your designs allow long blocks of text to be broken into short, scannable chunks. Focus on “top ten list” types of content.

Viral Calls to Action

Most successful contagious ideas contain some element of evangelism, where the meme itself contains instructions to spread it. On Twitter, including the phrase “please ReTweet” dramatically increases the likelihood that you’ll get ReTweeted. Most religions teach followers of the need to convert non-believers, and most chain letters explicitly ask recievers to send them on.

  • Social Media Buttons: The easiest viral calls to action are buttons or badges from various social media sites, including Digg, Reddit, Twitter (“Tweet This” buttons) and Facebook. Place these buttons in as many prominent locations as you can.
  • Triggers and Motivations: My viral content sharing survey uncovered a handful of motivations that can be used to persuade users to share your content. Include these triggers near your calls to action.


People don’t spread content they’ve seen or heard a million times before. For an idea to be contagious, it has to be new in some way. In fact, my research has shown that ReTweets contain more uncommon words than regular Tweets do.

  • Uniqueness: As noted in the section above about authority, your designs should stand out from the pack. Don’t make your site look like the default WordPress template, and replace the default Drupal favicon.


Once you’ve started to get traffic to a site from your viral efforts, you’ll want to convince visitors to stick around. Users of social media sites are the most prolific content sharers, so you should especially concentrate on getting new users from social sites engaged and committed.

  • Subscriptions: Feature your RSS and email subscription options everywhere you can, and as prominently as makes sense in your design.
  • Twitter: Direct as many of your readers as you can to follow you on Twitter. This includes links in your sidebar, as well as at the end of each piece of content.
  • First Time Visitors: Consider using a plugin like WWSGD to show a special message just to new site visitors that encourages them to subscribe or follow you. This way, you can really drive the point home with new users, but avoid annoying your repeat readers.